“The Rum Diary”
Everything about “The Rum Diary” held the promise, or at least the distinct possibility, of greatness. Based on a novel begun by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson when he was 22 years old and published nearly 40 years later, the film version was executive produced by its star, Johnny Depp, popular culture's greatest advocate for Thompson's work and a friend to the writer in this lifetime. In addition, it was helmed by writer-director Bruce Robinson, the mad wizard behind “Withnail and I” and “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” who had not made a film in nearly two decades. The stars seemed ready to align, and yet “The Rum Diary” only works in fits and starts, a rambling, shambolic fever dream that only occasionally recalls the great mania of Depp's previous Thompson project, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Depp stars as Paul Kemp, a bored journalist who exiles himself to Puerto Rico in the late 1950s to work at the San Juan Star, a sham of a newspaper run by paranoid editor Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). As soon as he arrives, Paul devotes himself to drinking vast quantities of rum, which makes him fit in perfectly with colleague/roommate Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), an unhygienic Nazi in a constant state of alcoholic rage. Along the way, Paul becomes entranced by party girl Chenault (Amber Heard), who is shacking up with a Union Carbide executive (Aaron Eckhart) working on a vaguely illegal land deal.
The Bob Sala character is an early version of the Dr. Gonzo persona, and Rispoli makes no bones about it in his performance — in fact, when an earlier run at “The Rum Diary” was planned 10 years ago, Benicio Del Toro of “Fear and Loathing” was reportedly set to play Sala. This time, the lysergic elements never coalesce into anything truly mad, and while Robinson's filmography suggests that he was a good match for the material, the director was unable to sustain the flashes of inspiration dotting the film.
Most disappointing of all, Depp seems like a bystander through much of “The Rum Diary,” an unwelcome outcome for an actor who is always at his best as an instigator.
— George Lang