If you look at Johnny Depp’s filmography, it’s full of weird movies and eccentric characters, like the ones in Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name a few. It’s like he’s drawn to weird. That theory is only further strengthened by The Rum Diary, a movie that includes hallucinogenic drug trips, hermaphroditic voodoo witch doctors and a dozen other scenes of absolute randomness. For a while, the wonder of where it will go next is charming, but eventually it becomes tiresome and by the end of its two hour runtime, you’ll have completely checked out.
Based on the novel of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, the film follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) as he takes on a job at a newspaper in Puerto Rico in 1960. During his attempts at what one might call journalism, he runs into a beautiful socialite named Chenault (Amber Heard) whom he begins to fall for. Unfortunately, she’s married to Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who is trying to get Paul to write misleading newspaper articles to rally public support for the building of hotels on an isolated island.
Things eventually go haywire, of course. Paul teams up with two bumbling alcoholics, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sala (Michael Rispoli), and they find themselves in precarious situations one would never expect. They end up on the dangerous end of a car chase, negotiating shady business deals, hanging out at posh parties, gambling on cockfights and arguing their innocence in a court of law, along with the aforementioned witch doctor visit and trip on “the most powerful drug in the history of narcotics.” So much of it is so unnecessary to what minimal story this film manages to create that you soon forget what Paul is doing and why.
But it never matters. Story points could be dropped and reintroduced at any point and it wouldn’t make up for the disjointed narrative. The romance that develops between Paul and Chenault isn’t even followed through and is instead quickly dropped with a few simple lines of dialogue. I suppose the nonsensical placement of certain scenes is supposed to heighten the humor, but the simple fact of the matter is that the film just isn’t that funny. At times, it’s too dry or understated, almost like a British comedy, and so far from being in your face, it’s practically non-existent. Other times, it’s too zany, which eventually leads to Paul and Sala essentially dry humping in the car.
The exception is Ribisi, who acts like you’ve never seen him act before, and he manages to squeeze out whatever humor he can, though much of it has to do with his alcoholism, which is no laughing matter even in a movie as silly as this. What it lacks in laughs, however, it makes up for with truly terrific performances. Depp is as good as ever as another charismatic, crazy, cunning man of words, but it’s Heard who manages to shine here, breaking free from ridiculous horror thrillers like The Ward, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Drive Angry and showing us some true potential.
But The Rum Diary nevertheless feels incomplete. Its story is fragmented and no emotional arc is ever created, despite an early moment where the score slows down and Paul photographs a poverty stricken area where a child is playing in a broken down car. With all the quirkiness on display, I suppose writer/director Bruce Robinson decided not to bother. “Best to stick to the comedy,” he must have thought. I wonder if he ever thought that perhaps the comedy wasn’t working.
The Rum Diary receives 2/5