The demented genius of Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas lay in Gilliam’s ability to find a stylistic analog to Thompson’s acid-soaked misadventures in the desert. The visual overload grows nearly intolerable, but the endless bingeing sessions and surreal psychedelics give the hungover moments of clarity and insight that much more pop. By contrast, Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary, based on Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel about his time in Puerto Rico in the early ’60s, feels loose but lackadaisical—a shaggy-dog story that’s mostly shag and little dog. Fear And Loathing star Johnny Depp more or less reprises his role as Thompson’s alter ego, once again playing a journalist whose yen for excess obscures the idealism at his core. But the film, despite its obvious intelligence and flashes of wit, doesn’t bring that passion across.
The Rum Diary opens with Depp stumbling a day late into the offices of the San Juan Star, a two-bit newspaper hampered by striking union workers and an editor-in-chief with no apparent love for the profession (the always-indispensible Richard Jenkins). Depp hacks out horoscopes and other space-fillers, and drinks heavily in the long hours in between, befriending a photographer (Michael Rispoli) who’s even more self-destructive than he is. Meanwhile, Depp gets roped into the lavish world of an American entrepreneur (Aaron Eckhart) who seeks to exploit the island’s pristine beaches for a luxury resort, staffed by underpaid locals. Depp’s interest in the businessman’s hot young girlfriend (Amber Heard) temporarily distracts him from the nefarious scheming going on under his nose.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson seems like the perfect man for the job, having familiarized himself with drink both on-screen, with the cult favorite Withnail And I, and off, where he’s had his own struggles with alcoholism. (He’s talked publicly about falling off the wagon during Diary’s production.) And Robinson does bring the film some depth and soul, particularly in the push-and-pull between his hero’s allegiances to indulgence and to justice. But too much of The Rum Diary is not just aimless but rudderless, so hip to its own Caribbean vibe that it feels detached and underinvested, especially in a romantic subplot that goes nowhere. The burning embers in Thompson’s soul are reduced here to a faint flicker.