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Video: Watch 'The Rum Diary' trailer

IMAGE: Rum Diary
Johnny Depp hops in a red Corvette for "Rum Diary."
Hollywood Reporter
updated 10/21/2011 10:48:38 AM ET 2011-10-21T14:48:38

Given that it's been on the shelf for two years and never popped up on the festival circuit, the whiff of trouble has hung over "The Rum Diary" for some time, so there is relief in discovering that the film is not so bad after all. Bruce Robinson wrote and directed one of the most memorable entries in the annals of alcoholic cinema, "Withnail & I," and a certain affinity can be felt. But what's sorely missing here is the raffishness and rudeness of the 1987 English film, as well as some concomitant spark in Depp's performance that would hint at the wild man, and talent, to come.

PHOTOS: Stills From 'The Rum Diary'

Thompson wrote "The Rum Diary," his second attempt at a novel, in the early 1960s, after having spent a year or so trying, without much success, to be a newspaper reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Depp, so the story goes, found the unpublished manuscript in the writer's Colorado home sometime in the 1990s, urged him to finally publish it and started plotting a film version. Heavily autobiographical, the book dwells on the depredations of newsmen in a world that today is nostalgically regarded as both seedy and glamorous.

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So youthful does Depp continue to look that it never seems odd that he's playing a journalist at the beginning of his career. Unlike Thompson himself, who was barely past 20 at the time of his Caribbean sojourn, his fictional alter ego Paul Kemp readily finds a position with the ragtag rag The San Juan Star, where high alcoholic intake is a job requirement; asked about his drinking habits, Kemp replies, “I suppose at the upper end of social,” which is good enough for bedraggled editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).

Slideshow: The many faces of Johnny Depp (on this page)

Taken under wing by 40ish staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), an engagingly mangy sort who by now seems too acclimated to the tropics to ever leave, Kemp tries to behave himself, even after meeting the bewitchingly sexy Chenault (Amber Heard), the flirty fiancee of Yank entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Very smoothly, the businessman lures the susceptible scribe into his web, with the covert intent that favorable coverage in the Star will help him and fat cat government-connected developers pull off a real estate scam giving them exclusive building rights in a privileged portion of paradise.

PHOTOS: Inside 'Pirates of the Caribbean'

Kemp is alert enough to pick up the warning signs and even goes on the wagon for a while to regain his balance. But Sanderson gains the upper hand by bailing him out of jail and the myriad benefits of going along, including cash, a gratis red Corvette, deluxe vacation destinations and, decisively, the continued presence of Chenault, prove too much. The story thus emerges as a contest between the seductions of corruption and summoning the strength to do the right thing. Given the source, it's not at all surprising that the path to moral clarity is provided by a raving lunatic, Moberg (an excellent Giovanni Ribisi), a one-time Star staffer too far gone on booze and drugs to function but whose reckless advance through the doors of perception positions him as a precocious forerunner of the counterculture to come.

VIDEO: 'The Rum Diary' Trailer: Johnny Depp Drinks His Way Through Puerto Rico

Despite this link between accepted/current and illicit/future forms of mood enhancement, as well as the “bad influence” theme reminiscent of "Withnail," "The Rum Diary" remains a relatively mild diversion, not at all unpleasant but neither compelling nor convulsive. This stems in significant measure from the diffident nature of Depp's character; hiding behind dark shades much of the time and affecting a hipster stance while remaining relatively cautious and noncommittal, Kemp doesn't inspire strong engagement. Strangely enough, there's a dose of Jack Sparrow in the characterization, albeit without the weird makeup and accoutrements, in that Kemp sort of bumbles into situations in a faux-innocent way, without particular focus or intent, and somehow muddles through. Without the allure and quirkiness that Depp provides, Kemp would be a pretty innocuous fellow, especially in comparison to some of those surrounding him.

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A fine character actor heretofore without the benefit of a defining role, Rispoli excels as a garrulous lensman who's probably talented but seems destined to a second-rate existence due to laziness and significant character defects. Although his phony wig is played for laughs, Jenkins' frazzled editor might profitably have been more pitched toward outright comedy to provide the film with more tonal variety.

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Conceptually, Chenault is a stock fantasy character, a teasingly unavailable object of desire designed to mesmerize. Many a pretty young actress could have filled this requirement, but Heard charges the standard-issue role with moments of something extra, a fleeting sense of abandon, unscripted wildness, inchoate yearning that couldn't have been planned but emerged in a fortuitous fusion of glance, turn of the head, youthful glow, lighting and camera angle. Stunningly beautiful, Heard creates tiny heartbreaks for this girl who is both free and trapped, one of nature's elite and yet possibly doomed.

As very few American films have been shot there, locations representing San Juan and environs a half-century ago are suitably fresh and evocative. The eclectic soundtrack also contributes to the smartly nostalgic feel.

Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter

Photos: Faces of Depp

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  1. Depp does TODAY

    Actor Johnny Depp sits down with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie to talk about his recent engagement, upcoming film "Transcendence," and his childhood ambitions of growing up to be a rock star. (TODAY) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red-carpet hello

    Depp attends the premiere of his film "Transcendence" at 798 Art Zone in Beijing on March 31, 2014. (Alexander F. Yuan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Put a ring on it

    Depp talks during a promotional event for his new movie "Transcendence" in Beijing on March 31. Depp showed off his diamond ring and confirmed that he's not just wearing it for fashion reasons. "The fact that I'm wearing a chick's ring on my finger is probably a dead giveaway," Depp said when asked by The Associated Press to confirm his engagement. "Not very subtle." (China Stringer Network / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. All eyes on him

    Depp stars as Will in "Transcendence", a movie about a terminally ill scientist who downloads his mind into a computer granting him power beyond his wildest dreams. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Have you Heard?

    Depp and Amber Heard attend the premiere of "3 Days to Kill" at the Arclight Theatre Feb. 12, 2014, in Los Angeles. Heard met Depp while filming "The Rum Diary" and they have dated since 2012. (Eric Charbonneau / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Hats off to you

    Depp appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on Feb. 21, 2013, in New York where he chatted about his upcoming film "The Lone Ranger," and played guitar. (Donna Ward / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'The Lone Ranger'

    Depp joined the Comanche Nation in advance of playing Native American Tonto in "The Lone Ranger," which opened in July 2013. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Axe man

    Depp loves to play guitar, and took the stage at the Jameson Petty Fest West on Nov. 15, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. With his alter ego

    Depp poses with a photo of himself as Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows" while in Tokyo to promote the film on May 13, 2012. (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Depp and the ladies

    "Dark Shadows" stars Chloe Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter pose with Depp in London on May 9, 2012. (Joel Ryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Dark Shadows'

    Depp was a fan of the 1960s-1970s TV show "Dark Shadows" as a child, and in 2012, plays vampire Barnabas Collins in the movie version. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Over and done

    Depp and girlfriend Vanessa Paradis attend the 9th Annual Critics' Choice Awards on Jan. 10, 2004, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Depp and Paradis began dating in 1998 and have two children together, Lily-Rose Melody and John Christopher, but separated in 2012. (Martin Bureau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'The Rum Diary' red carpet

    Depp poses for photographers as he arrives for the French premiere of his film, "The Rum Diary," on Nov. 8, 2011. (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'The Rum Diary'

    In "The Rum Diary," Depp plays an itinerant journalist who leaves Eisenhower-era America for the freedoms of Puerto Rico and its plentiful rum. Depp reportedly found the manuscript for "Rum Diary" at Hunter S. Thompson's home and encouraged the famed gonzo journalist to publish it. (FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. In the spotlight

    Depp attends the premiere of the movie "Public Enemies" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, Calif., on Tuesday, June 23, 2009. The star told David Letterman that he never actually watches his own performances. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Alice in Wonderland'

    Depp plays the Mad Hatter in director Tim Burton's take on the 2010 film version of "Alice in Wonderland." The two have collaborated eight times. Burton told the L.A. Times that Depp didn't mind playing another oddball character, "He loves doing that. That's never a problem. He doesn't like to be the same way twice. That's good, it always keeps it fresh and all. And he likes the material we have here and he gets it. It's nice to have people involved that are fans of the material and all." (Walt Disney Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'Public Enemies'

    Depp stars as bank robber and folk hero John Dillinger in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies." Christian Bale co-stars as the FBI agent who's determined to track him down. In an interview with the U.K. Telegraph, Depp said, "John Dillinger was that era’s rock and roll star,” said Depp. “He was a very charismatic man and he lived the way he wanted to and didn’t compromise. I feel he was a kind of a Robin Hood because he truly cared about people." (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 'Sweeney Todd'

    For his sixth collaboration with director Tim Burton, Depp starred as murderous barber Sweeney Todd, who begins a sinister partnership with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), when they begin turning his victims into meat pies. The role required Depp to sing and the actor told Entertainment Weekly that the experience was "frightening. Really frightening! When Tim asked if I'd be into it, he said, 'Do you think you can sing?' And I said, 'Honestly, I don't know. 'I'm not tone deaf, so I knew I could stay in key to some degree. But I didn't know if I could sustain a note, or belt one out." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Another popcorn trophy

    Depp accepts the award for best performance for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" onstage during the 2007 MTV Movie Awards on June 3, 2007, in Universal City, Calif. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fans across the world

    Fans cheer Depp on his arrival at Narita International Airport for the Japanese premiere of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" on May 22, 2007, in Narita, Japan. The film grossed over $960 million worldwide. (Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'

    Depp was more than ready to play Captain Jack Sparrow for a second time. He told About.com, "I kind of like everything about playing him. I feel like he's just good fun to play ... You get to add stuff and try things and get away with it, just to see what you can get away with. I've been very lucky so far, and he's just a really fun character. I certainly wasn't ready to say goodbye to him after the first film. I felt like there was a lot more to be done, more fun to be had." (Walt Disney Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Slimed!

    Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller share the stage at the 18th Annual Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards at the UCLA Pauley Pavillion on April 2, 2005, in Westwood, Calif. Depp took home the award for favorite movie actor for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and favorite voice from an animated feature for "Corpse Bride." (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Leaving his mark

    Depp attends the hand and footprint ceremony honoring him in the courtyard of the Mann's Chinese Theatre on Sept. 16, 2005 in Hollywood, Calif. (Vince Bucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

    Depp plays eccentric candy mogul Willy Wonka in 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Director Tim Burton doesn't give us the warm and fuzzy version of Wonka, instead he twists everything just enough to make Depp perfect as the child-despising candy maker. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. 'Finding Neverland'

    Depp played "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie in 2004's "Finding Neverland." In the film, the married Barrie befriends Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her sons and finds inspiration for his classic story of a boy who doesn't want to grow up. (Mirimax Films via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Dynamic duo

    Depp and Kate Winslet attend the "Finding Neverland" screening at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4, 2004, in Venice, Italy. Depp told the BBC that he enjoyed the idea behind "Peter Pan." "The notion is beautiful, the idea of staying a boy and a child forever, and I think you can. I have known plenty of people who, in their later years, had the energy of children and the kind of curiosity and fascination with things like little children. I think we can keep that, and I think it's important to keep that part of staying young. But I also think it's great fun growing old." (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. 'Pirates of the Caribbean'

    Depp found his inner pirate when he surprised everyone with his free-wheeling portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Orlando Bloom played straight man to Depp's almost drunken performance of a pirate, a character he based partially on Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Still in character?

    Depp arrives at the premiere for "Blow" in Los Angeles on March 29, 2001. He told Cinefile.com he found the film challenging, especially after meeting the real-life character he was about to play. "You initially would think of this guy as the smuggler who, it appears, has abandoned his family and would not be a very likeable person. When I met George and read the book, I realized it was a lot more complicated than that. He was doing what he knew ... He became the thing he did not want to become. He became his greedy, money-obsessed mother ... The real George, who I spent days with in the Otisville penitentiary, is a very charming, very bright, interesting guy." (Lucy Nicholson / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. 'Blow'

    This 2001 film is based on the true story of George Jung (Depp), who was instrumental in establishing the cocaine trafficking market in the 1970s. Depp clearly had fun with both the hair styles -- check the sideburns -- and clothes when making this film about the downward spiral of a drug dealer. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. 'Chocolat'

    Who can woo mysterious chocolatier Juliette Binoche? Could it be the dashing Roux (Depp), a gypsy who's just passing through but gets a taste for Binoche's sweets? Lasse Hallstrom directed this 2000 film, which may be a bit too sweet for its own good, though Depp and Binoche make an appealing pair. (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. 'Sleepy Hollow'

    In 1999's "Sleepy Hollow," yet another collaboration with Tim Burton, Depp plays Ichabod Crane, New York police inspector sent to sort out a series of murders who falls for the lovely Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci). But to reach her he must travel through the frightening woods, chased by the deadly Headless Horseman. (Paramount Pictures via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

    Depp plays writer Hunter S. Thompson in this 1998 adaptation of his classic book about a drug-filled adventure with friend and lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, in an other-worldly performance). The film may leave you feeling like you've indulged in a couple of illegal substances. (Universal City Studios Productio) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. 'Donnie Brasco'

    Depp stars as an undercover FBI agent in 1997's "Donnie Brasco." In the film, he infiltrates the mob and befriends Benjamin 'Lefty' Ruggiero (Al Pacino). The deeper he gets, the more his regular life suffers, with his marriage falling apart. But can he walk away without making Ruggiero pay for his sins? (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 'Don Juan DeMarco'

    Depp plays a man who believes himself to be Don Juan, the greatest lover in the world, in 1995's "Don Juan DeMarco." Marlon Brando plays the psychiatrist treating him who gets more and more drawn in by his stories, especially those of the lovely Dona Ana (Geraldine Pailhas). Beyond Depp's usual fine performance, a rotund Brando has major chemistry with his wife, played by Faye Dunaway. (Getty Images / New Line Cincema via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Bad boy

    Depp being escorted out of the 19th Precinct in New York after his arrest in 1994 for damaging a hotel suite. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Thrilled?

    Depp holds a replica of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. Depp once told Cinema.com, "I'll never understand the animal, the machine of Hollywood business. And I don't want to understand it. It's like joining a club, a clique just because everyone else is in it. You don't have any particular interest in it, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. You just join it because it's the thing to do." (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. 'Ed Wood'

    Depp portrayed the worst director ever in Tim Burton's 1994 film "Ed Wood." Known for his love of cross-dressing and for making films like "Plan Nine From Outer Space," Wood was yet another oddball outsider to add to Depp's growing quiver of quirky characters. (Touchstone Pictures via Getty Im) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. 'Benny & Joon'

    Depp plays Sam, a simple man with a love for Buster Keaton films in 1993's "Benny & Joon." After winning him in a poker game, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) brings him home, much to the chagrin of her brother and caretaker Benny (Aiden Quinn), who doesn't have time for a love life of his own, let alone taking care of yet another person with psychological problems. But when Sam and Joon find love, Benny has to realize that sometimes it's time to let go. The film features some awesome Chaplin-esque routines from Depp. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. 'Edward Scissorhands'

    Depp is never afraid to adopt a strange hairstyle or makeup for a role as he proved in his first collaboration with Tim Burton, 1990's "Edward Scissorhands." In the title role, Depp stars as gentle man with scissors for hands who falls for golden girl Winona Ryder, while finding time to create interesting hairstyles for the town's women, as well as trim a few hedges. Of course, not everyone likes this oddball, and as in many of Depp's films, he finds himself an outcast. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Power couple

    Depp dated Winona Ryder from 1989-93, his co-star from "Edward Scissorhands." They got engaged, and he tattooed "Winona Forever" on his right arm -- but after they separated, he had that changed to read "Wino Forever." (WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. '21 Jump Street'

    Depp made an early splash playing Officer Tom Hanson on "21 Jump Street." Depp, along with Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson and Dustin Nguyen, played cops who staked out high schools. Yes, it's true, this is the show that made being a narc somewhat cool. (Krause Johansen / Fox TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. 'Cry-Baby'

    Depp stars as greaser Wade 'Cry-Baby' Walker, the delinquent orphaned son of the executed Alphabet Killer in Jon Waters' 1990 film "Cry-Baby." Sexpot Wanda Woodward (former teen porn queen Traci Lords) is part of Cry-Baby's gang. Cry-Baby tries to use his many charms to woo the virginal Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) away from her square friends and battle lines are drawn. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (42) Faces of Depp
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