Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Backdropped against the bohemian charm of the early 60s on a luxuriously sun-kissed Puerto Rican island, with fast cars, boozy shenanigans and gorgeous Mad Men-esque office set pieces, it's hard not to quickly fall in love with director Bruce Robinson's comeback film The Rum Diary. Not only because you get to see Johnny Depp looking off-handedly dapper in a suit and his array of straw hats, or Amber Heard wearing little more than a tan in the entire movie, but also because the film is based on late literary sensation/gonzo journalism founder Hunter S. Thompson's vaguely biographical novel.
Depp plays aspiring journalist Kemp, a younger, presumably cooler version of Thompson, who lands a spot working for a dying newspaper in Puerto Rico. He's initially tasked with writing the horoscopes section, and is warned by his eccentric, tightly-wound editor (Richard Jenkins) to stay out of any trouble. Unscrupulous real-estate developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), recognizes Kemp's talent despite his general devil-may-care attitude and obvious penchant for alcohol, and attempts to lure him into his latest project of building hotels on an unspoiled island. After an disastrous run-in with the law, Kemp along with his bumbling, new-found work buddy Sala (Michael Rispoli) wind up getting saved by Sanderson, leaving him no choice but to be a part of his team. Initially seduced by the promise of money and Sanderson's sultry girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), Kemp grows increasingly uncomfortable with the young real-estate mogul's methods.
The Rum Diary serves up a few wonderfully capable performances, with Depp and Rispoli showcasing some delightful chemistry. But its Giovanni Ribisi, playing amusingly guttural, alcoholic freakshow Moburg, who very nearly steals the show from enigmatic Depp - his drunken rants almost deserve their own comedic stand-up spin-off. Eckhart, in spite of his blonde hair and general wholesomeness, surprisingly fares best when he's thrust into darker roles (re: Two-face in The Dark Knight) and fleshes out villainous Sanderson with respectable flair. Heard is basically token arm-candy #303, whom we all know was essentially thrown into the mix just so they could shoot a few sexy scenes, but even she blends in admirably with the rest of the cast. Reportedly BFFs in real life (he apparently paid for Thomson's funeral), Depp's portrayal of Kemp is not one of the actor's best works – some parts of his performance seems phoned in especially during solo shots – although he does a pretty fascinating job interpreting Kemp's drug-and-alcohol fuelled moments.
That said, the movie is significantly choppy in places and becomes dreadfully anti-climactic towards the end. Sanderson's “evil” purpose is similarly not exploited to more nefarious advantage – in retrospect there's really nothing too terrible about building a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for naval test bombing. Then again these hotel investors also pass racist comments and complain about Communists so they distinctly fall into the morally ambiguous category, thus rendering their plans wicked by definition.
Clearly more of a character driven kind of film, The Rum Diary's plot-lines hardly snag any catches. Fortunately it manages to pull itself together eventually, and maneuver rather spectacularly in all its muted-madness glory.