Review: The Rum Diary

John Holden

Johnny Depp is the highest paid actor in the world with earnings of over $74million in 2011 alone and it’s not hard to see why. Throughout his career he has taken his characters to new levels, turning the vast majority of them into eccentric, larger than life caricatures of humanity: Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Sweeney Todd, the Mad-Hatter, Willy Wonka, Raoul Duke – the list goes on. However, with these caricature portrayals there is often little room for genuine, human qualities and that is the problem with The Rum Diary. The acting throughout is fundamentally poor. The characters lack any kind of chemistry between each other; even the simmering sexual tension between Depp and Amber Heard fails to create any kind of spark, although they are both undeniably fantastic to look at. I imagine Depp may well describe his performance as ‘minimalistic’ or ‘understated’ but often he seems very subdued and in dire need of a little slap or sneaky cattle prod just to wake him up. He spends almost the entire first half of the film just making faces of bemusement, with varying degrees of eyebrow-raising and the second half brings almost cringe-worthily bad wistful conversations between himself and Heard, with very rare sparks of the passion and zest which have made Depp so successful. This lack of spark left a very heavy atmosphere weighing on the shoulders, although occasionally broken up by flashes of comedy, often provided by the stand-out performer Giovanni Ribisi (Pheobe’s brother with the triplets in Friends) as the constantly drunk Moburg.

The film itself acts as a prequel of sorts to the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which also stars Johnny Depp as the drug-addled journalist Raoul Duke. Although in this film the character is named Paul Kemp, both are based on the author of the two books Hunter S. Thompson. The Rum Diary focuses on Kemp’s arrival in 1960’s Puerto Rico, an area which seems to run entirely on alcohol, in an attempt to forge a career as a journalist. However the local paper, the San Juan Star, is on the verge of being shut down as it battles with the depravity of the area whilst simultaneously attempting to present an image of ‘The American Dream’ to outsiders. It is this idea of ‘The American Dream’ which forms the main theme of the film, as Kemp is drawn into corruption and the Puerto Rican underworld, where he instantly falls in love with his boss’s (Aaron Eckhart) girlfriend, Chennault (Amber Heard). Kemp goes on something of a rum-fuelled voyage of self-discovery as he seeks to ‘find his voice’ as a journalist. Perhaps this sheer volume of self-reflection explains the suppressed mood and left me longing for the crazed, hedonistic Duke of Fear and Loathing. Even Depp’s portrayal of drunkenness, at which he is usually so reliable, lacked its usual verve and seemed almost as if he was intentionally toning it down.

Despite a late glimmer of comedic slapstick involving a dilapidated Fiat rampaging through the streets of San Juan, my overriding view of this film is that it lacked life in almost every way. The characters are wooden, the plot is tediously uneventful and the acting, for the most part, is surprisingly poor considering the quality of the cast. The only saving grace is the aesthetic beauty and natural cool of Depp and Heard, Puerto Rico and its 1960’s setting, but that hardly makes up for the other glaring flaws. It’s unsurprising that this film has bombed at box offices on either side of the Atlantic, but I get the feeling that this won’t be of much concern to Johnny Depp, for whom this was clearly a personal project – a labour of love. It is the first film produced by his production company and he apparently went to great lengths to make this adaptation, of a book which he found discarded in a basement, a reality. Even after this, Depp will still be the biggest, most sought after movie star in the world and Amber Heard will still land roles based on the fact that she is sacrilegiously attractive. Whilst I’m sure it will have its fans that enjoy its understated approach, the majority of us will just have to forget that it ever happened and look forward to seeing Depp back on form as some out of this world, freakishly brilliant creation as soon as possible.

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