Monday, March 19, 2012

The Rum Diary

Combining Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson makes for one potent shot. But throw in the writer-director of Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson, and you’ve got the all makings of an intoxicatingly perfect cocktail.

At the very least you should know better than to try and make a drinking game out of the movie…

Robinson is back behind the camera after a nineteen-year hiatus, serving up ‘the spiritual prequel’ to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 cult-classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In fact though written in the 1960s, The Rum Diary was only published in 1998 after Fear and Loathing sparked renewed interested in the Gonzo journalist. So there was really only ever one actor destined to step back into those drunken, drugged up shoes.

Cue Depp, playing New York novelist turned hack-for-hire Paul Kemp, who washes up on the sunny shores of Puerto Rico circa 1960 and winds up a lightweight newspaperman, penning horoscopes and tourist fluff for his harried editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Kemp’s purported attempts to turn over a new leaf and run dry are dashed by the film’s opening shot: a bloodshot eye. But he cleans up enough to get himself inveigled in a real-estate plot to develop a nearby island. Greasing the corrupt corporate wheels is suave businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhardt), whose blonde bombshell of a girlfriend (Amber Heard) leads Kemp into even deeper waters of deception. 

This all sounds suitably frivolous and fun, and on occasion it is. Especially when you factor in Dariusz Wolski’s sleek cinematography and Giovanni Ribisi chewing the scenery as a deranged walking corpse, Moberg, who collects Nazi memorabilia when he’s not scraping the bottom of his moonshine barrel. Of course Kemp partakes, wherein the elastic-featured Depp is an amusing sight to see, with Robinson ensuring a portrait of drunkenness so well rendered you can feel the dry-mouth and anticipate the pounding headache.

But droll drunkenness and some good-looking locations is about all The Rum Diaryhas going for it. Forget the boozy chortles, what are the stakes? The story is disappointingly slim and scattershot (not unlike its drunken characters), revealing about as much depth as alcohol vapors. Heards’ supposed femme fatale is thinly drawn, if undoubtedly sexy, and Eckhardt works in vain to bring heft to the toothless and similarly slight Sanderson.

Although Depp is always a delight to see bounding about on screen, here he is given precious little to do. Kemp is supposedly a writer in search of a voice, but essentially all we see from Depp is set of cool sunglasses and a couple of funny faces. And where the brilliant comedic chemistry between Kemp and his journalistic partner in crime Sala (Michael Rispoli) is further evidence of great casting, again the aimless story squanders the onscreen talent.

Indeed after all the promise of a perfect cocktail, The Rum Diary quickly becomes like being the only sober person at a party where everyone else is absolutely trashed. It’s entertaining for a spell, but pretty quickly you’ll be heading for the door.

2.5 stars
Published on TheVine

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