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Everyone’s woken up to the pounding head ache. The one that comes with a constantly bubbling stomach and blood shot eyes that tell the prior night’s story.
From the moment you see star Johnny Depp’s same blood-shot eyes in Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary, you know where that rum part of the title comes from and where the film might be heading.
That hung over man is Paul Kemp, a nomadic journalist from New York. A relatively normal guy, Kemp shows up in San Juan, Puerto Rico to take a position with The San Juan Star - a newspaper on its way out.
People love Johnny Depp, and part of that is his ability to portray those characters that are little off kilter. Whether it’s Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter, he’s shown an ability to depict something out of the ordinary, which is why his character in The Rum Diary is so out of character for Depp.
Kemp represents Depp’s second time depicting world-renowned journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose book of the same name served as the basis for the film.
Thompson’s hard-drinking and even harder living life can be seen in Depp, but despite his constant smoking - he’s puffing away in nearly every scene - he finds a way to make Kemp relatable and down to earth.
What isn’t quite as relatable is the story, which is Depp experiencing the strange culture of Puerto Rico. Whether it’s his alcoholism or the constant clash between poverty and wealth, the story takes a dark angle at times.
Depp experiences much of this with his photographer, Sala (Mark Rispoli), equally an alcoholic, albeit more culturally sound and a proud cock fighter. The two represent the American in a foreign land, maneuvering through their lives without much direction.
That’s great and all, but for as intoxicated as the duo is throughout the film, the story jumps around at a schizophrenic pace. One minute you’re seeing Depp working on a story and the next he’s spitting rum into a lighter to shoot fire at someone then he’s schmoozing with the beautiful Chennault (Amber Heard).
It’s really too bad the story jumps around as much as it does because the adventures and interactions we see between Depp and Rispoli are legitimately funny. While his humor comes off as dry and many times unassuming, Depp consistently finds a way to make the right facial expression to make a line seem more funny than it actually is.
Partying aside, the journey through the film sees an array of characters. Whether it’s the newspaper editor Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) or shifty public relations snake Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), they don’t fall into a cliché and the actors fit their roles.
The dynamic between Eckhart and Depp is what fuels the film. Eckhart is part of a group illegally trying to secure land on an island not yet for sale. In way, it’s a battle of good (journalism) versus bad (public relations) that eventually helps Depp gain the perspective and eventual understanding of how life in Puerto Rico is.
Music is far and in between, but when you hear a song it just fits. Maybe it’s the fact that finding music to make a tropical island seem, well, tropical is relatively easy, but despite the thin soundtrack, the songs just fit the moment well.
Depp does his job in The Rum Diary and there’s definitely a good enough mix of laughs and seriousness to warrant calling the film a comedic drama.
However, it does feel like the film is Robinson’s first directorial appearance since 1992, and that’s not a good thing. If you cut the two-hour runtime down by 30 minutes, you probably don’t lose a whole lot and the film might have been able to avoid the sporadic storyline.