For those perturbed by the dysfunctional nature of The Rum Diary, the clue lies in the title. The original book itself is a fictional serialisation by Hunter S Thompson of his stint at the San Juan Star in 1960, in between unabashed hedonism. If you seek a coherent story, look elsewhere.
But here’s the irony: it’s not incoherent. Not nearly enough. Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp consumes 161 miniatures from the mini bar, necks 470 proof alcohol and takes a haunting trip (‘Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet’), but the madness is tame. And the alcohol seems diluted.
Already the film has tanked in the US, indicating a growing weariness with Depp’s career path the past decade. It’s also a symptom of not countenancing atypical storytelling, courtesy of Withnail and I writer and director Bruce Robinson’s return to cinema. The clash of cultures doesn’t appease the sensitive souls across the Atlantic – this is Robinson’s first film since 1992’s Jennifer Eight – an experience he found so horrific that he swore never to direct again. A promise he held for 17 years before accepting Depp’s offer to return to the chair.
Robinson admitted that he used just two lines from the novel and preferred to imbue the screenplay with his own surrogate imagination of Thompson’s. As a task, he succeeds, however rather than utilise a discombobulating Gonzo-inspired narrative, the film’s intentions become muddled. Various tones are meshed to such arid proportions that all the steam on the Thompson Express is spent within the first hour.
And again Depp’s Pirates shtick re-emerges in what is becoming laziness on his behalf. It backfired spectacularly in Alice in Wonderland and here the monotony to which audiences have grown accustomed to fails once more. He awakes in his trashed hotel room, hungover and eyes bloodshot, but his enviably toned torso and floppy hair obliterates the shock factor. In fact, he has rarely looked more like his in Cry-Baby (1990) greaser.
The support is insufficient too. Amber Heard’s vivacious eye candy is just that whilst Aaron Eckhart, still attracted to crooked roles, has also succumbed to the boredom that Depp invariably induces. Michael Rispoli (Sala) and Giovanni Ribisi (Moburg) energise proceedings and understand the Thompson ethos as Kemp’s debauched cohorts yet Richard Jenkins, a gifted comic actor, is utterly miscast.
Easy targets such as the American Dream, although an interesting subject matter when handled deftly, act as a redundant cliché taking up too much of the running time. Possibly a comment on the modern state of journalism and its ostensible impotence, it is nevertheless an incongruous inclusion.
Sharp dialogue and raucous set-pieces lift the 16mm retro image of Puerto Rico, but the rum has been spiked with pretentiousness.