Watching Johnny Depp play a boozing but idealistic circa-1960 journalist with his usual disaffected and distanced irony, it’s hard not to wonder what an actor like Cary Grant would have done with the role. Movie-star masculinity in the Eisenhower era — even the self-deprecating variety — was so different from Depp’s deadpan detachment that The Rum Diary feels anachronistic and unconvincing even on a surface level. Trying to play up its lackluster laughs doesn’t help.
What’s surprising is that the film may have worked better as an only slightly tongue-in-cheek and more smartly sophisticated drama than as this half-hearted farce. Although gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson wrote protagonist Paul Kemp as a stand-in for himself in the original novel, its premise is a very conventional “scruples vs selling out” parable. While Paul does eventually take an acid trip, the scene is so unnecessary its inclusion feels like obligatory Thompson branding. The Rum Diary definitely is not another Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas pharmaceutical-fueled freak show, in other words.
Newly hired at Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star newspaper, Paul must decide whether to report on social injustice issues or shill for arrogantly rapacious real estate developers. Doing the right thing means standing up for poor locals who resent him for affiliating with capitalist devils like the smooth but morally despicable Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Abandoning his principles means keeping the keys to a sweet two-tone Corvette, having easy access to yacht parties and basically living the very good life.
The Cary Grant question arises during a night scene in which Paul steals a paddleboat. Sanderson’s deliciously Coppertoned and apparently naked fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard) emerges from the water near Paul and they engage in flirtatious banter. It’s the kind of exchange Grant could pull off with winking charm and an undertone of mischievous menace, but Depp only seems awkwardly addled. Likewise, a later scene in which Chenault dares him to keep going faster in the Corvette until one of them screams is more silly than sexy.
With the exception of the oily Sanderson and the reflexively teasing Chenault, who display an acceptable degree of dramatic credibility, other supporting cast members range from the cartoonish to the outright absurd. The newspaper’s photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), who invites Paul to share his disgracefully downscale domicile, is overloud and obnoxious. The apartment’s other resident, an even louder and much more manic reporter named Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), enjoys homemade 470-proof alcohol and Hitler speeches. Paul’s perpetually ranting editor EJ Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) has a bad toupee but a way with an insult, such as when he describes Moberg as being “about as useless as a dug-up body.”
Director/screenwriter Bruce Robinson (who wrote and directed 1987’s Withnail and I and scripted 1984’s The Killing Fields) rarely manages to make the nearly two-hour film feel more fun than forced. Robinson has said “there are only three lines that Hunter wrote in the whole script,” which should concern Thompson purists. Also, animal lovers may find three cockfighting scenes objectionable, although the American Humane Association did monitor the action.
Despite all of the talent on hand, the movie’s most memorable comedic moment is the simple sight gag of Paul driving a tiny junkyard-ready Fiat with his head sticking above the roof while sitting on Sala’s lap.
As for the rest of The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp should have stayed out of the Caribbean without a pirate ship.
The Rum Diary gets its theatrical release October 28, 2011