There is no doubt that Johnny Depp is a bona fide movie star. His films have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide making him one of the highest paid actors working today. That also means he can get pet projects, like The Rum Diary, green lighted regardless of their quality. The Rum Diary is based on one of Hunter S. Thompson’s books which Depp encouraged him to finish before his death in 2005. Most people know that after portraying the writer’s alter ego in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp and the author became close friends. Though The Rum Diary is a very genuine tribute to Thompson, it is ultimately a very poor film.
Depp plays Paul Kemp, a hard-drinking journalist who travels to Puerto Rico in 1960 to take a job at the rapidly collapsing newspaper “The San Juan Star.” Run by the exasperated Mr. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the paper has recently cut back on workers due to poor circulation. This has led to riots outside the building of the “Star,” but Kemp’s directive is to ignore that blemish and focus on the happy events in San Juan. Kemp quickly finds a kindred spirit (read: drinking buddy) in photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) who knows the paper’s days are limited.
Having barely had time to take off his hat, Kemp gets himself mixed up with the shady “PR consultant” Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who is a former “Star” employee and is now working illegal land development deals with less-than-ethical local and U.S. partners. Kemp wouldn’t have been so easily suckered had it not been for the wad of cash Sanderson flashes him as well as his girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). Though he is originally interested in simply the pay day, Kemp quickly realizes that Sanderson’s plans cannot be allowed to happen.
When Depp decided he wanted The Rum Diary to happen, the only director he had in mind was Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) who has been in semi-retirement for several years. Robinson was also tasked with adapting the story for the screen and the result is an uneven script which alternates between a cheap Fear and Loathing knockoff and some type of 007 slapstick comedy. Robinson steals much from Gilliam’s 1998 psychedelic trip but never decides if he’s trying to make a sequel or homage or something completely his own. The result is a bastardized mash-up of styles which is unpleasant to watch.
Depp is, of course, terrific which is par for the course. His work as Kemp is quite brilliant as he lays very subtle clues and indications about how Kemp could quickly devolve into Raoul Duke, Depp’s character in Fear and Loathing, whose story supposedly begins a decade or so later. Watching Depp is like watching Michael Jordan on the basketball court; he makes everything look effortless and everyone else bad by comparison.
The rest of the cast, for the most part, is decent. Eckhart doesn’t really have a fully developed character to work with so he just coasts by on his natural charisma. Jenkins is entertaining at first, but then just becomes annoying. This is a criticism of the screenplay rather than the performance. Heard, though, is absolutely terrible and gives the most wooden and emotionless performance since January Jones in…well, anything.
The Rum Diary never lives up to the serious potential it had which can only be attributed to Robinson’s misguided and schizophrenic screenplay.
This film is rated R and runs 120 minutes.