Title: The Rum Diary
Directed By: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
Critically, Johnny Depp has been all over the map for the past few years, however, one thing remains consistent, the guy is dedicated. Give him an icon like J.M. Barrie, someone more eccentric like Jack Sparrow or even an animated character like Rango and Depp seizes the opportunity and gives the role everything he’s got. Then again, you can’t forget that acting is only one aspect of the moviemaking puzzle and while Depp stands tall yet again in The Rum Diary, he can’t keep the rest of the piece from crumbling around him.
Depp is Paul Kemp, a failing novelist in need of a quick buck. He relocates from the mainland to Puerto Rico where he snags a gig at the failing local newspaper, The San Juan Star. No matter what he’s doing – attempting to write horoscopes, report on the latest local bowling championship or just rolling around in his co-worker Sala’s (Michael Rispoli) defunct car – Kemp is drinking rum – lots and lots of rum.
Kemp’s booze bubble is invaded by a local real estate mogul. Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is out to turn a section of lavish land into a hotel property. Nice for tourists, but not for the natives. Sanderson proposes that Kemp puts his writing skills to use to dupe the public into thinking that building the hotel is the best case scenario, citing the example that if a government official proposes a tax hike far higher than necessary and then barters with the public, they’ll think they’re getting a deal, but that official will get what he or she needs. The problem is, the plan is illegal and despite his tendency to drink his life away, Kemp has a conscience.
The Rum Diary sets the tone quickly, opening with credits over an image of a small red plane, blissfully soaring through the clouds set to the tune of something tropical. However, that pretty little plane turns out to be an advertising agent, welcoming people to Puerto Rico, even people with no interest in a welcome mat, people like an incredibly hungover Kemp. A bloody-eyed Kemp stumbles to the window disgusted by the far-too-bright image and then he really shows off his current incompetence when a hotel employee attempts to bring him breakfast. Within minutes, not only do we have a strong sense of who Kemp is, but we’re already deeply entrenched in the style of the piece, too.
Things continue to stay on line for a bit, Kemp heading in for his interview and then making the awkward transition into finding his place in the disheveled newspaper office. The film loses its balance when Eckhart’s character steps in, giving us two dilemmas to keep an eye on – the state of the paper and Sanderson’s plan. Yes, movies have subplots in addition to the main plot all the time, but the problem here is that neither feels like they’re ultimately about Kemp and our hero doesn’t really have much control over either situation.
The same goes for his romance with Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). It’s established early on that Chenault does what she wants and while Sanderson would like to have the upper hand, she’s not going to give it to him. While this trait makes for a fiery leading lady, her zest is utterly meaningless as there’s not much more to her. We see her act out, but know little about her values or even why she’s swayed by Kemp.
Also finding themselves with less than ideal characters are Giovanni Ribisi and Richard Jenkins. Ribisi’s Moburg is weird, too weird. In fact, he’s so unkempt, he’s a little tough to look at. As for Jenkins, his character, the head of the newspaper, Lotterman, runs into problems courtesy of a strange plot point. While Sanderson assumes the position of the film’s lead villain from the moment he steps on screen, at one point, Kemp talks about sticking it to Lotterman, something that doesn’t really have any grounds, or at least from the audience’s perspective.
While this is clearly a Johnny Depp-headlining film, Rispoli comes very closer to stealing that spotlight entirely. There’s something particularly warm and engaging about him from the start, opening his arms to the paper’s newest addition. Even after that, Sala goes out of his way to help Kemp and the two ultimately develop a really sweet friendship. Then, considering that the story as a whole isn’t as much about Kemp as it is the situation, Sala turns out to be somewhat of a rock in this manic adventure.
The Rum Diary isn’t a terrible film, but what keeps it from being enjoyable is that it’s not very funny. Again, when the main character isn’t engaging enough to establish a connection, you’re left with the story and, in this film’s case, much of that story is deeply rooted in the piece’s need to earn a laugh, something that it generally fails to do. Depp is clearly trying and from a visual standpoint, the piece looks beautiful, but when laughs are few and far between and the story itself is relatively loose and not all that engaging, those assets do little good.