[Screen It]


(2011) (Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli) (R)

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Drama: An American writer takes a newspaper job in 1960s San Juan but finds himself distracted by his inability to avoid beautiful women and booze.
It's 1960 and unpublished novelist Paul Kemp (JOHNNY DEPP) has arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Editor-in-chief Edward Lotterman (RICHARD JENKINS) likes Paul's resume and hopes he'll be more productive than the testy and rarely present Moburg (GIOVANNI RIBISI). The latter shares an apartment with the paper's photographer, Bob Salas (MICHAEL RISPOLI), and Paul eventually ends up moving in with them when his mini-bar tab at the local hotel goes through the roof.

Paul also draws the attention of Hal Sanderson (AARON ECKHART), a former paper employee who's now a politically connected PR consultant. With some investors wanting to put a hotel complex on a soon to be available island, Sanderson sees Paul as the best man to write copy that will manipulate the masses and powers-that-be to get in line with the project.

Paul agrees, but finds himself distracted by Sanderson's alluring girlfriend, Chenault (AMBER HEARD), who just wants to have fun. With booze and drugs ending up as additional distractions, Paul stumbles his way through his obligations and must eventually decide who he is and what he stands for.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Read, listen or watch the news nowadays -- at least in America -- and it's predominantly fear-based to one degree or another. While local, victorious sports teams might get positive coverage, for the most part the rest is about crime, corruption, things that can harm or kill you and any number of other reports, advice and such. It's to the point that many a reader/listener/viewer may want to hole up in their house and curl up in a ball if they hadn't just been notified that doing so could lead to negative mental, physical or societal repercussions.

I don't remember it always being this way, especially when I was a kid before the Watergate story broke and investigative journalism spread like wildfire across the nation and into every subdivision looking for something bad to report on. That said, I certainly don't have much knowledge of how news is or was reported in other countries.

If one is to believe the editor-in-chief of the San Juan Star in "The Rum Diary," though, early 1960s news coverage was expected to be upbeat. As portrayed by the always reliable Richard Jenkins in a purposefully bad wig and bitter tone, the people only want to know about the winners and not any problems.

That doesn't sit well with the new reporter who's just arrived on the beat, a guy by the name of Paul Kemp. He's become disillusioned with America in that era and thus has arrived in Puerto Rico looking for a refuge and hoping to find himself and his purpose in life. But he really wants to write, what with being an unpublished author who drowns his frustrations in booze.

As portrayed by Johnny Depp, the character might remind some of another cinematic creation he played quite a while back in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." That character, of course, was Hunter S. Thompson, and the comparison is understandable, inevitable and purposeful since "The Rum Diary" was an early, somewhat autobiographical piece of fiction by and about that very author. Just imagine a less gonzo version and earlier incarnation of the part from the 1998 film and you'll be all set to take in this work.

In addition to that particular offering, Depp is no stranger to playing off-beat, troubled and/or substance-addled characters that one would avoid in person, yet find alluringly magnetic on screen thanks to the performer's work and charisma. Such is the case here, where the new reporter is obviously a troubled man with a drinking problem, an inability to stay out of trouble stemming from his own behavior or that of others, and isn't sure of who he is or what he stands for.

He ends up keeping company with the paper's photographer (Michael Rispoli in a standout role) while being a bit wary of another journalist who's gone off the deep end (convincingly portrayed by a barely recognizable Giovanni Ribisi although he often goes so far as to teeter on caricature). He also finds himself drawn to the alluring girlfriend (Amber Heard) of an American opportunist (Aaron Eckhart) who's involved in some corrupt business dealings in a world that's changing because of exactly that.

If the journalist was all right with himself, that would be a no-brainer bit of reporting. But he's easily distracted by the temptations of the flesh and bottle, not to mention being stymied by his editor who doesn't want any sort of "rock the boat" coverage in his paper. As a result, the character just sort of bounces from event to event, something writer/director Bruce Robinson can't handle well enough to keep the story moving forward with positive momentum and/or maintain the viewer's engagement.

I found various elements of the film funny, entertaining and enjoyable, but as a collective whole, it just doesn't gel that well together. As a result, it never feels like it gets anywhere, with some last minute character growth on the part of the protagonist feeling forced, out of place and tacked on (perhaps the third act was tinkered with to one degree or another in the film's reported several years of sitting on the shelf awaiting some sort of release).

Having never read the source novel -- Thompson's second written, although it wasn't published until decades later in 1998 -- I can't say how true this cinematic adaptation is to that work, its characters and/or plot. But if this film were a book, I probably would have skipped ahead pages or chapters to see if it gets any better.

It doesn't, and while it's not bad enough to drive one to drink, it's a rather listless offering featuring Depp doing a less fun and quite tempered down version of Thompson by way of Jack Sparrow. That might not be bad news for some, but for yours truly, "The Rum Diary" only rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 24, 2011 / Posted October 28, 2011

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