When success eludes even the most talented of men, the only chance of sanity lies in a change of scenery. For Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), struggling writer and chronic alcoholic, this change comes in the form of Puerto Rico — and what follows in the film is a sweet amalgamation of everything savage and seductive. Yet the pandemonium of ’60s Puerto Rico, with its opportunistic expatriates, poverty-infested streets and rum galore, yields a film too caught up in the insanity of its own premise to serve any substantial purpose.
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Fresh from the “Pirates” series, Depp returns to the Caribbean with yet another intoxicating performance, this time as an aspiring journalist. But the journalist and pirate have one thing in common — an undisputed affection for rum. With two unfinished novels and no significant career to his name, Kemp has an unsurprising affinity for alcohol. What’s surprising is the sheer amount consumed in the movie. From finishing 150 miniatures in his hotel room to drinking “470 proof alcohol” — which apparently exists — Kemp assures that “The Rum Diary” lives up to its name.
When he’s not drinking, Kemp’s out looking for a story that will allow him to be taken seriously as a journalist. Puerto Rico, however, has different plans. Kemp is soon tangled in a plethora of distractions dispersed throughout the island, like the beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard, “Drive Angry 3-D”). As the girlfriend of businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”), Chenault represents the elusive blonde bombshell who captivates every new soul in town. Heard plays the part with ease, but her vulnerable expressions quickly become monotonous. Then again, it’s hard to stand out when you’re acting opposite Depp or the flawless and convincingly egocentric Eckhart.
Still, it’s difficult to care for any of the characters. Ultimately, Puerto Rico and rum outshine the brilliance of the actors. The script skims the superficial end of comedy by offering some truly hilarious moments and no context as to why they’re significant to the plot. And the reason for this comic relief is always the same — rum. Kemp gets drunk, ventures into some hostile part of Puerto Rico and gets into trouble. When he’s not getting into trouble, he’s getting out of it, and we never know why this is happening.
Kemp’s discovery of injustices being committed by Sanderson in the second half of the movie seems like the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, there’s some reason for his existence. Speculations are made as to how he’s going to bring these injustices into the spotlight. But no such thing happens. The movie ends as abruptly as it started, and one walks out of the theater unfulfilled, wondering what just happened. “The Rum Diary” is like a roller coaster that loses feeling just when it reaches its peak.
It’s a classic example of a film that took so long to make that at some point, director Bruce Robinson (“Jennifer Eight”) forgot its purpose. The characters and events drown in a sea of rum and drugs, and even the grueling yet enthralling streets of Puerto Rico can’t inspire the hazy premise on which “The Rum Diary” was based. When Depp, an actor who’s built his career on iconic characters like Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, can’t make the audience care about Kemp, there’s obviously something wrong with the movie.
In the end, “The Rum Diary” is a forgettable tribute to the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson and leaves a lot to be desired.