The Rum Diary, based on another literary punch-out by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (his second novel), was made nearly three years ago, shelved in some musty editing room where un-releasable movies go, and looks it. The dust still shows.
Johnny Depp is dismally miscast as an alter-ego of the rebellious author with the “screw you” attitude—a wasted, beat-up alcoholic who goes to Puerto Rico to work for a doomed newspaper called the San Juan Star whose faltering editor (Richard Jenkins, unrecognizable in a gray wig) is helpless to draw much attention to world events in a lawless island overwhelmed by gangsters and riots.
Aaron Eckhart is an American PR mogul selling off pieces of pristine beachfront used for U.S. military target practice to rich corporate powers to build hotel towers, condos and ugly villas. After hiring on to write promotional copy for brochures, Depp falls for his gorgeous girlfriend (Amber Heard) and a scene-stealing turtle named Harry with a jeweled shell. In no time, Depp gets fired, smashed to hamburger and left in a drunken stupor on a fly-specked floor.
To Thompson fans—little boys weaned on comic books who never grew up to crave bare breasts and bare knuckle beatings—it’s a call to arms. “There is no dream—just a piss puddle of greed, spreading throughout the world” is the cynical philosophy of the author, and the movie. With no job, no money, no girl and no future, the protagonist sees the way to redeem himself as a journalist is to write an exposé of the criminal activities in San Juan—a sort of rum diary of corruption—and publish it. But how do you get your old mojo back when your paper is already closed down?
In an attempt to distract the viewer from the fact that there is nothing going on here, director Bruce Robinson cobbles in cockfights, sexual tension, a red convertible racing at breakneck speed, a traveling carnival, endless bottles of rum and a hermaphrodite witch doctor who drives a garbage truck. It’s all window dressing for an empty ruin, haunted by the hungover ghost of Thompson. The oddest thing about The Rum Diary, though, is all those half-nude shots of Depp, who is covered with tattoos, trying to camouflage them with Max Factor. Everyone has seen them, so if you’ve gone that far to abuse your body already, why not let it all hang out? In a role that is practically a beachcomber, the sun on that much greasepaint looks like he’s got spotted fever.