Upon learning that there was a gap in his schedule during which he would not be shooting any Tim Burton movies, Johnny Depp returned to his second-favorite subject: Hunter S. Thompson. Depp played the gonzo journalist's alter ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and has now both produced and starred in an adaptation of Thompson's The Rum Diary, once again playing a character who is a lightly fictionalized version of Thompson himself. It's probably only a matter of time before Depp stars in an actual biopic of Thompson, or changes his name to Johnny Hunter S. Thompson Depp.
I wish I could say his enthusiasm for Thompson's work translated into a movie that makes us love the writer as much as Depp does, but The Rum Diary doesn't capture it. What we have instead is a jaunty, aimless series of mini-adventures about boozed-soaked writers in Puerto Rico in 1960 -- a promising subject, to be sure, but one that needs some focus and discipline to make it work on the screen. We have some fun with it, but you can tell the actors (not to mention the characters) are having a lot more fun than we are.
Thompson wrote the novel in the early 1960s (though it wasn't published until 1998), basing it on his own experiences writing for English-language newspapers in San Juan during Puerto Rico's industrialization and tourism boom. His avatar, Paul Kemp (Depp), arrives at the offices of the San Juan Star with the promise of a reporting job. Kemp is unkempt, a heavy drinker and frequent sufferer of hangovers, but that's OK: the once-noble Star is a fluff rag aimed at American tourists, staffed by personnel at least as dysfunctional as Kemp, and run by an unscrupulous editor named Lotterman (the always-watchable Richard Jenkins), who chomps a cigar and wears a boldly unconvincing toupee. Kemp fits right in.
He becomes friends and roommates with the paper's photo editor, Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli), the sort of friendly lug who was born to be someone's sidekick. The two drink potent moonshine concocted from materials stolen from the Bacardi distillery and take in some underground cockfights, all the while traveling in Salas' comically decrepit automobile. They are at times abetted by Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a fellow writer so permanently drunk, stoned, and delirious that he can literally barely stand up. Moburg is what rowdy-but-functioning alcoholics like Kemp eventually become if they aren't careful.
Kemp also falls in with Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a rich entrepreneur looking to push some of the local poor people out of the way so he can build hotels on their land. Sanderson has a hot, dangerous girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), who likes to flirt and isn't completely on board with Sanderson's aggressive policy of exploitation and opportunism.
You can smell trouble brewing in every corner, and the film is largely composed of sequences in which Kemp and one or more of his associates get into scrapes, often narrowly cheating death and/or the police. Some of these incidents are funny enough, the way drunken shenanigans tend to be. But while everyone in the cast is lively, the only characters who emerge as colorful are Lotterman and Moburg. The others are amiable but forgettable -- and that includes Kemp, who benefits only slightly from Depp's patented mischievous charm.
Depp is a fan of Withnail and I, the 1986 cult classic about a pair of underemployed drinkers in 1960s London, and he went so far as to hire that film's writer/director, Bruce Robinson, to make The Rum Diary. That sounds like a good match. So why is the result a shambling, overlong near-miss? Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Puerto Rico, a lot of booze: yeah, this deserves to be better than just mediocre.