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Given that it’s been on the shelf for two years and never popped up on the festival circuit, the whiff of trouble has hung over The Rum Diary for some time, so there is relief in discovering that the film is not so bad after all. Robinson wrote and directed one of the most memorable entries in the annals of alcoholic cinema, Withnail & I, and a certain affinity can be felt. But what’s sorely missing here is the raffishness and rudeness of the 1987 English film, as well as some concomitant spark in Depp’s performance that would hint at the wild man, and talent, to come.
Thompson wrote The Rum Diary, his second attempt at a novel, in the early 1960s, after having spent a year or so trying, without much success, to be a newspaper reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Depp, so the story goes, found the unpublished manuscript in the writer’s Colorado home sometime in the 1990s, urged him to finally publish it and started plotting a film version. Heavily autobiographical, the book dwells on the depredations of newsmen in a world that today is nostalgically regarded as both seedy and glamorous.
So youthful does Depp continue to look that it never seems odd that he’s playing a journalist at the beginning of his career. Unlike Thompson himself, who was barely past 20 at the time of his Caribbean sojourn, his fictional alter ego Paul Kemp readily finds a position with the ragtag rag The San Juan Star, where high alcoholic intake is a job requirement; asked about his drinking habits, Kemp replies, “I suppose at the upper end of social,” which is good enough for bedraggled editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).
Taken under wing by 40ish staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), an engagingly mangy sort who by now seems too acclimated to the tropics to ever leave, Kemp tries to behave himself, even after meeting the bewitchingly sexy Chenault (Amber Heard), the flirty fiancee of Yank entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Very smoothly, the businessman lures the susceptible scribe into his web, with the covert intent that favorable coverage in the Star will help him and fat cat government-connected developers pull off a real estate scam giving them exclusive building rights in a privileged portion of paradise.
Kemp is alert enough to pick up the warning signs and even goes on the wagon for a while to regain his balance. But Sanderson gains the upper hand by bailing him out of jail and the myriad benefits of going along, including cash, a gratis red Corvette, deluxe vacation destinations and, decisively, the continued presence of Chenault, prove too much. The story thus emerges as a contest between the seductions of corruption and summoning the strength to do the right thing. Given the source, it’s not at all surprising that the path to moral clarity is provided by a raving lunatic, Moberg (an excellent Giovanni Ribisi), a one-time Star staffer too far gone on booze and drugs to function but whose reckless advance through the doors of perception positions him as a precocious forerunner of the counterculture to come.
Despite this link between accepted/current and illicit/future forms of mood enhancement, as well as the “bad influence” theme reminiscent of Withnail, The Rum Diary remains a relatively mild diversion, not at all unpleasant but neither compelling nor convulsive. This stems in significant measure from the diffident nature of Depp’s character; hiding behind dark shades much of the time and affecting a hipster stance while remaining relatively cautious and noncommittal, Kemp doesn’t inspire strong engagement. Strangely enough, there’s a dose of Jack Sparrow in the characterization, albeit without the weird makeup and accoutrements, in that Kemp sort of bumbles into situations in a faux-innocent way, without particular focus or intent, and somehow muddles through. Without the allure and quirkiness that Depp provides, Kemp would be a pretty innocuous fellow, especially in comparison to some of those surrounding him.
A fine character actor heretofore without the benefit of a defining role, Rispoli excels as a garrulous lensman who’s probably talented but seems destined to a second-rate existence due to laziness and significant character defects. Although his phony wig is played for laughs, Jenkins’ frazzled editor might profitably have been more pitched toward outright comedy to provide the film with more tonal variety.
Conceptually, Chenault is a stock fantasy character, a teasingly unavailable object of desire designed to mesmerize. Many a pretty young actress could have filled this requirement, but Heard charges the standard-issue role with moments of something extra, a fleeting sense of abandon, unscripted wildness, inchoate yearning that couldn’t have been planned but emerged in a fortuitous fusion of glance, turn of the head, youthful glow, lighting and camera angle. Stunningly beautiful, Heard creates tiny heartbreaks for this girl who is both free and trapped, one of nature’s elite and yet possibly doomed.
As very few American films have been shot there, locations representing San Juan and environs a half-century ago are suitably fresh and evocative. The eclectic soundtrack also contributes to the smartly nostalgic feel.
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