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The Rum Diary Suffers From A Fear & Loathing Hangover

The Rum Diary
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson
Film District, 2011

Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas is one of those movies that didn’t do anything when it came out, but then gathered a cult following afterwards.  Anyone who has seen Terry Gilliam’s take on Hunter S. Thompson will forever judge Thompson adaptations based on that movie, an absolutely cracked, mind-bending take of drug abuse taken to absurd levels.  Johnny Depp was his absolute best in that picture, back when he seemed interested in creating characters rather than coasting on whatever it is he has become now, where he coasts on some version of his Ed Wood or Jack Sparrow and delivers those solid, boring performances for everything else.

This is Bruce Robinson’s first movie since…what?  Jennifer Eight?  That’s 19 years ago!  Of course, this movie took forever to be made.  There was overtures to make it way back in 2000, went through various producers and writers, then it started shooting in 2009.  Now we’re nearly in 2012 and here’s the movie.  The book itself was written in 1961 and didn’t get published until 1998, probably on the strength of Fear & Loathing’s re-discovery.

The Rum Diary takes place in 1960, and Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a writer getting a job in Puerto Rico for the San Juan Star, a struggling newspaper with no vision from its editor Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), and tons of wasted writers, including the way-far-gone Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) and cock-fighting gambler Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli).  Kemp is sent on assignments that are way beneath him, but then one day when an interview subject is unable to show up, he runs into the wealthy Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants to use Kemp to write positive press that will persuade people to fund a shady real estate venture.  Sanderson’s fiancee is Chenault (Amber Heard), a party girl who seems to have a thing for Kemp but doesn’t seem the type to be tied down.  Nevertheless, Kemp thinks they have a unique chemistry.

Kemp gets into a great many misadventures involving Sanderson, Chenault, the locals, and his fellow writers, and thus the story is episodic in nature.  Some of those “episodes” are decent, most of them are not.  The movie picks up towards the end when Kemp and company start taking drugs and go on a terribly misguided mission to save the struggling newspaper.  The movie is best when it focuses on characters, especially Ribisi’s movie-stealing take whenever he appears.  A lot of the segments with Sanderson and Chenault kind of bog the movie down, and it would have been nice to keep the adventuresome spirit going, but a lot of this can be boring at times.

What we have here is a story that has been through so many transformations and delays, a lot of the interesting has been punched out of it.  It may get better later with a second look on cable or video, but for now the movie doesn’t sit well.

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