.The Rum Diary

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE: Impeccably tailored suits and expertly polished convertibles leave Johnny Depp and Aaron Eckart reeking of American cool in ‘The Rum Diary.’

‘I SHARED a dark suspicion that what we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey.” Truer words have never been spoken, and they’re spoken in The Rum Diary. Bruce Robinson’s film is a prequel of sorts to 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the same way that that film was a biography of its writer, the paranoiac-turned-prophet Hunter S. Thompson: abstractly for the casual viewer, but a delight for its die-hard fans.

Johnny Depp plays Paul Kemp, a run-down journalist brought into Puerto Rico to work at a run-down paper that loves nothing more than to remind him that they’re both run-down. It’s no shock, then, that Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a corporate goon attempting to build a large-scale hotel on a nearby island with Kemp’s help, is able to sway his moral compass by dangling a life of grandeur in front of him.

The DNA of Thompson, long a fan of morality tales (largely due, as Thompson would attest, to being a product of a time devoid of morality), is all over the film, which is just as much a loving tribute as it is an uneven adaptation. Part of its problem is the film’s polish, which even Thompson acknowledged by never formally publishing the novel until 1998, and only at the insistence of Depp himself, who unearthed it from the writer’s piles of works.

That the text went untouched in the years since its initial inception is more evident in the film than it is in Thompson’s book, where that first bit of dialogue finds its place. When The Rum Diary tries to insert Thompson’s iconic prose, in which he looks into the soul of America and is revolted to find himself understanding what he sees perhaps too clearly, the film feels muddled—too obsessed with the darlings of his text to understand when they do and don’t fit.

The film’s pacing is elongated, never able to treat its assemblage of plots as anything more than a two-hour montage of non sequiturs. And Depp, who has for almost a decade been able to parlay his rock-star persona into one of Hollywood’s last top-billing men, is lazy here. He phones his magnetism in and asks it to do the rest. The film’s one bright spot is Giovanni Ribisi, whose eccentric alcoholic Moburg colors the film with the kind of energy Depp lacks. As a disgruntled and shamed former employee of the paper, Ribisi’s Moburg is gonzo incarnate: feverish, unreliable, and perhaps the best pair of eyes to watch the film through. Fans of Depp will see The Rum Diary for him; fans of Thompson’s will see it for Thompson; fans of both have probably been watching it in their heads for years. Question: How do you handle a win-win situation? Answer: Wrap it up quickly.

The Rum Diary

R; 120 min.

Plays valleywide

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