Johnny Depp wasn't able to create a hit in 1998 with the movie adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the most famous novel by his friend Hunter S. Thompson. So now, with "The Rum Diary," the producer/star taken another shot, instead adapting perhaps Thompson's most obscure work.
Like Terry Gilliam's famously polarizing version of "Fear and Loathing," "The Rum Diary" is a mixed success, albeit for very different reasons. The new film, directed by Bruce Robinson ("Withnail and I"), is much more conventional—it's much more plot-driven, and while the characters spend most of the movie under the influence, it doesn't try to make the audience feel like they are too.
The film boasts a highly impressive cast and contains some great touches, but it's too long by a half hour and meanders severely in its second half.
Set in 1960, "The Rum Diary" stars Depp as a Thompson surrogate, trying to keep his alcoholism at bay while working for an English-language newspaper in Puerto Rico. Working for a veteran newsman (a toupeed Richard Jenkins) and taking on a photographer (Michael Rispoli) as his sidekick, Depp stumbles into a plot by a shady real estate developer (Aaron Eckhardt) while becoming interested in the man's girlfriend (Amber Heard).
The characters get into various drunken shenanigans involving everything from car chases to cockfighting, often with the help of another character, known as Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). A filthy, slovenly, perpetually intoxicated/stoned sociopath with a penchant for profanity and Hitler-centric affectations, he's by far the most interesting character Ribisi has played in his career, and easily the best thing about the movie.
Much as I love Hunter S. Thompson, I think I'd rather watch a biopic of that guy.
"The Rum Diary" gets off to a great start, introducing excellent characters played by top-notch actors, and both crime and romantic plots that look like they're going somewhere interesting.
But the film slows down considerably at about the halfway point, its plot peters out, ending unsatisfactorily in most cases. And after a third act that seems to go on forever, the film reaches a conclusion—that earnest, muckraking, white-knight journalism should come before fun or debauchery—that's sort of at odds with the established Thompson ethos.
The novel was written in 1961, when Thompson was in his early 20s, although it's not clear exactly how old Depp's character is supposed to be. The 48-year-old actor has the strange fortune of somehow looking younger today than he did when he played an older version of Thompson 13 years ago, even wearing a haircut that strongly resembles his 'do from "Cry Baby." He does a fine job, and while he does the Thompson voice again, this isn't quite as challenging an acting job as "Fear and Loathing" was.
Rispoli, perhaps best known for playing Jackie Aprile, Sr. on a few early episodes of "The Sopranos," is a revelation as the photographer; he really should be headlining a cop or mobster show on FX or AMC.
And Ribisi, for the first time in his career, is really deserving of Oscar attention, although I doubt he'll get it. And while I liked Heard—she's introduced, mermaid-like, while swimming up to a boat—I couldn't stop noticing that she's younger than Depp by almost 25 years.
"The Rum Diary" was unpublished for nearly 40 years before finally appearing in 1998. It's not a bad story—I read it once in college but confess to not remembering much—but I can't help but wonder why so much of Thompson's great work has been untouched by Hollywood.
The Silver Screen Rating: 2.5 star (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Rum Diary
Directed by: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard
Length: 2 hrs.