(by Dustin Putman
A Hunter S. Thompson adaptation starring Johnny Depp as one of the late writer's alter egos? Fans of 1998's cult masterpiece "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" would do best not to get their hopes up about the long-awaited "The Rum Diary," which shares a few of the same details—a journalist at its center; an exotic locale; a loose narrative structure—but none of the kaleidoscopic, go-for-broke style that filmmaker Terry Gilliam brought to his respective project. In its place, writer-director Bruce Robinson (who also wrote 1998's woefully underrated "In Dreams") has fashioned a meandering, cloudily unfocused, drearily lit, ultimately indifferent experience with a lead character who stands as a big question mark despite appearing in virtually every scene. In Raoul Duke's drug-fueled haze existed a born writer's clarity about the world around him and the momentous era in which he was living within, and that was where "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" offset its zonky interludes with integral gravity. In Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), the same cannot be said. After an introduction that sets up a drinking problem, his addictions are promptly forgotten about as he walks through actions in search of a plot—or at least a point. He's a blank enough slate, letting things happen to him rather than the other way around, that it is impossible to figure out where he's coming from and what his belief system entails. Tellingly, "The Rum Diary" is set in 1960 Puerto Rico, but could just as easily take place anywhere at any time in the last sixty years with few significant tweaks having to be made. Article continues below
New Yorker Paul Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico with the hopes of reporting for The San Juan Star. With sales rapidly dropping, grizzled editor-in-chief Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) has seen too many employees come and go with, as he puts it, "a lack of commitment and too much self-indulgence." Kemp appears to have the enthusiasm he's looking for in one of his writers and has soon nabbed himself a job. Partnered with offbeat staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), Kemp sets out to explore the region and ends up finding a possible story in wealthy American entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who is hoping to pull off a scam that will give him positive press and first dibs on the island's land development. Adding to Kemp's conflict of interest is Sanderson's luscious Connecticut-born fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). "Why did she have to happen?" he asks, well aware following their first chance meeting that she's bound to be a major influence on his life.
"The Rum Diary" has one spectacular ingredient in Amber Heard (2011's "Drive Angry"), the consummate total package who manages with every role she takes on to bring added emotional layers, remarkable beauty, and an unspoken sadness to frequently underwritten characters. That would most definitely be the case with Chenault, who doesn't get enough to do and isn't on screen with the frequency preferred, but is far and away the most memorable, energetic element of this otherwise muddy, dull slog. Even when the script dares to suggest otherwise, Heard ensures that Chenault is more than simply an object of desire, her looks adding to her tragedy as she dares to act out the illusion of freedom without actually being so. When she and Depp share the screen, it's positively steamy. One can only imagine what might have been achieved if she hadn't so often been pushed to the wayside.
In what could be looked at as a precursor to the pill-popping, mescaline-dropping, cocaine-sniffing, booze-swilling scribe he became in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (remember that this film is set at the dawn of the '60s and that one took place in the '70s), the apparently ageless Johnny Depp (2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides") believably looks ten-plus years younger despite being thirteen years older. Even so, there is no way that he can be playing someone younger than thirty, opening up questions as to who Paul Kemp is and what he was doing with his life prior to moving to San Juan. With so little dialogue or narration filling in his point-of-view, he remains a cipher instead of an active participant in his own story. He might look good, but he's boring here, and that is one characteristic that Depp can rarely ever be accused of. As for mumbling sidekick Sala, Michael Rispoli (2010's "Kick-Ass") is stuck doing a bad impression of Benicio Del Toro's Dr. Gonzo.
"The price of everything, the value of nothing," says Paul Kemp about a place he's come to for opportunity, but found next to no substantial worth in. It's a line that deserves quoting since it's one of the few that is memorable and about more than just wandering around in a disconnected collection of scenes. Clocking in at precisely two hours, "The Rum Diary" feels closer to four. Thinking back on the film soon after, it is as if barely anything occurred in it at all. With no concrete plot and only shallow character arcs to be had, the picture is bereft of rooting interest. Not even the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (2010's "Alice in Wonderland") takes proper advantage of the Puerto Rican scenery, always appearing a notch or two more faded and indistinct than it should (did the film perhaps wilt as it sat on the shelf for two years?). "The Rum Diary" will not be winning an award for truth in advertising; rum is in short supply and a diary might have come in handy to understand who Paul Kemp is beneath the surface. That is, if the viewer had been given a reason to care in the first place.