‘The Rum Diary’: Watering the drinks

October 28, 2011

“The Rum Diary” is like a lengthy drinking binge of a movie: It’s fun for a while, seems to offer more meaning than it actually does – and leaves you wishing it hadn’t ended so badly.

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson from the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” ostensibly offers a mirror of Thompson’s own early career as a newspaper reporter, looking for a way to bring meaning to his journalism while, at the same time, exploring his own worst impulses. He is, to use a favorite Thompson phrase, always on the lookout for “bad craziness.”

In this story, the Thompson-esque reporter is a guy named Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an American expatriate who has just landed a job at the English-language paper in San Juan, at a moment in the 1950s when American companies are cranking up their commercial plans for the U.S. territory. Kemp doesn’t have to do anything too special; he is assigned to cover garden parties, social events and the like. It’s not as if he speaks Spanish.

He’s teamed with a photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), who’s a long-time resident of the island – and before long, Kemp has become involved with a powerful American businessman named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and his mistress Chenault (Amber Heard), partying with them, serving as a media stooge for Sanderson’s various big-money investment schemes.

Gradually, Kemp falls for Chenault, even as he becomes suspicious of Sanderson’s various plans. Before long, he’s decided that he will be the reporter who will blow the lid off Sanderson’s greed-inspired developments, which will transform Puerto Rico into a money-trap tourist destination, marketed to the hilt, instead of relying on its tropical charms to attract travelers.

But, as this film shows, nothing works simply on this island; everything comes with a price and every price includes someone to collect it, who believes he’s owed a piece of your hide as the price for doing business with him. By the time Kemp figures this all out, he’s already a lost cause.

Unfortunately, so is the movie. Robinson leads Kemp and his pals down a number of blind alleys, escaping from all but the final one, each time with less invention and more strain. But there’s no sense of the major comeuppance that awaits the naively crusading Kemp, even after his life is repeatedly threatened.

Depp glides through this performance minus the Thompson impression he affected in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He’s believably jaded and sometimes unbelievably naïve. There are moments when it feels as though someone is about to lower the boom on him – which you’d like to see because his path is relatively obstacle-free.

Otherwise, “The Rum Diary” is pretty low-proof, with a handful of funny moments and a few wild ones, but few of the anarchic impulses that veined Thompsons’ writing. This is definitely a movie that could use a lot more weirdness.

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