Whenever a movie is mostly shot and then not released for a while, there's reason for concern. The Rum Diary is a labor of love from star Johnny Depp. It's based on the the novel by (my favorite author) Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote the book as a young man, shelved it for decades and then sold it in 2000. Depp is not only a huge fan of Thompson's but was one of his best friends toward the end of his life. I appreciate the passion for wanting to make this movie, but shelving a book works and shelving a movie doesn't.
Depp met Thompson when he played him in another film based on one of his books called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is still one of my favorite comedies of all time and it was shot with pure venom by director Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Time Bandits). The script and scope of the film captured the pure Gonzo craziness that Thompson wrote in as best as a movie could. I've read The Rum Diary and I'm fully aware that the tone of the that and the tone of Fear and Loathing are polar twins, however it still didn't duplicate the attachment that Fear and Loathing had to its source.
One area of shortfall was in not allowing Gilliam to return as a director. Instead Depp turned to Bruce Robinson, who hasn't made a film in 20 years and even the ones he has directed aren't very good. The look of the movie is crisp and authentic to 1960, when it takes place, but it moves at an almost agonizing pace. Some of that might be intentional, since this is about Thompson when he was a young man and first getting into journalism. This is pre-drugs, pre-psychotic, pre-mania...you know the good ol' days when he was just a raging alcoholic. The writing style of the book is vastly different than anything else he wrote, so it makes sense that the movie would be too.
But parts of the book are introspective and pitch dark. One key scene involves a gang rape of a gorgeous and drunk female character played in the movie by the stunning Amber Heard (Zombieland, Drive Angry). The brutality is described in the book because of how it makes the characters react and it's hard to get through but crucial. This scene is watered over so gently in the film that it confuses anyone who hasn't read the book as to what is actually going on or why reactions are so strong afterward. Mistakes like this abound in The Rum Diary. It takes the potential of a deeply emotional and funny story and makes it stilted and disjointed.
That's not to say the film is a total wash. It showcases a very impressive cast that features Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Battle: LA), Richard Jenkins (Let Me In, Hall Pass), Giovanni Ribisi (Cold Mountain, Avatar) and the best of the film, Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass, Taking of the Pelham 123). It also has one of the best production designer, costume designer and prop masters in a while. Since it takes place in 1960 Puerto Rico, the attention to flawless time capsulated detail is of the same quality of AMC's Mad Men.
I still enjoyed this film because I will always love Thompson and the words he left behind. He was an inspiration for me and it's nice to see his legacy kicked off and given respect in The Rum Diary. But my same adoration is also the undoing for this film. I'm sure even Johnny Depp shares my disappointment a little since I felt like I knew Thompson, where he really did. The Rum Diary (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C