The Rum Diary, which could just as easily be titled “Hunter S. Thompson Begins,” is an adaptation of the famous Gonzo journalist’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young American reporter named Paul Kemp, who goes to work for a struggling newspaper in Puerto Rico, only to soon find himself embroiled in a love triangle, a political conspiracy, AND battling a near constant state of chemically-induced mind alteration. The movie holds two exciting prospects for fans of Johnny Depp – to see him once again play one of Thompson’s kinda-fictional alter-egos (as he did so memorably in the great Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), and to finally see him in a real adult movie again, after what feels like years of family-friendly fare (I guess you could point to The Tourist, but why bother?).

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Depp, his co-stars and writer/director Bruce Robinson, The Rum Diary never really sizzles in the same way that Terry Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing did. There are great moments here and there (most of which are highlighted in the film’s trailer, which promises a much wackier and fun movie than what you really get), but the film’s two-hour running time feels overly lengthy and unfortunately only serves to highlight the thin and rambling narrative of the source material (I guess there’s a reason The Rum Diary is not as beloved as Thompson’s non-fiction work).

Too often the film is content to just let us watch Depp wander around Puerto Rico and take in the sights – a more judicious editor probably could have cut about twenty minutes from this thing and delivered a much more entertaining and on-point final product. The film’s main conflict, involving the hero unwisely getting involved with a shady businessman (Aaron Eckhart) and his beautiful girlfriend (Amber Heard) doesn’t start to manifest itself until a point where most of the audience will already start to be getting antsy…and, quite frankly, said conflict also isn’t really interesting enough to forgive the earlier boredom.

It’s too bad, cause like I said, the actors are having a good go of it. This is a case of a number of very good performances in search of a better movie to showcase them. Since Depp is playing a younger, more naive version of Thompson, he doesn’t really get to cut as loose and wild as he did in Fear & Loathing, but he still does his friend proud and delivers a strong turn, particularly in the film’s later half when we feel Thompson’s rage-against-the-corrupt-and-powerful attitude begin to take form. Thankfully, Depp also has great chemistry with Michael Rispoli, who plays the newspaper’s photographer and Kemp’s eventual roommate. The film is at its best when it plays up its buddy-comedy aspirations, and I liked watching these two play off each other.

Meanwhile, Eckhart is very good in a fairly generic “crooked bastard” role, while Heard brings a tender human side to what at first just seems like a thankless sex-pot character. But it is Giovanni Ribisi who steals the show as Moberg, the eternally high and drunk crime reporter that at first seems utterly repellent (he collects and listens to records of Hitler speeches, apparently for fun), but in fact turns out to be one of Kemp’s few allies, and perhaps the only one who shares his anger at “the system.” This is the sort of scene-stealing part that Depp probably would have played if this movie had been made a decade earlier, and it’s the one character that really makes me wish the movie as a whole could have been better, so that Moberg could have been seen by a larger audience and Ribisi could have got the acclaim I think he deserves.

Overall, this is one of those movies that isn’t really bad enough to just call flat-out “awful,” but is also never consistently engaging enough to call “good.” It will appeal mostly to Thompson fans, as it does get some decent mileage out of depicting the man’s early days and the events that led to him forming the values and mission-statement that would come to define his writing. But the problem is all of that stuff is crammed into the film’s final act, and a lot of the stuff preceding it noticeably lacks Thompson’s signature anarchic wit and intensity. A film about what made Hunter S. Thompson into Hunter S. Thompson sounds great in theory, until you remember that means you have to sit through a lot of Hunter S. Thompson NOT being Hunter S. Thompson first. A handful of truly funny scenes and a determined cast come THIS close to saving The Rum Diary, but ultimately it would take the work of an editor to actually do so. At 90 minutes, this might have been a killer comedy, at 120 it’s a little tiresome.

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on November 23rd, 2011.

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