Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Rum Diary

Directed by Bruce Robinson.
2011. Rated R, 120 minutes.

Michael Rispoli
Amaury Nolasco
Marshall Bell
Bill Smitrovich

Puerto Rico in 1960 might not be the best place for a guy trying to quit drinking, or at least cut back enough to focus on his new job. After all, rum appears to be the most plentiful beverage on the island. The guy is Paul Kemp (Depp) and his job is reporting for a barely surviving American newspaper on the island. After cleaning out the mini-bar a few times in the hotel room the paper is paying for, his new boss Lotterman (Jenkins) moves him into a ratty apartment with two other more seasoned but cynical reporters. Shortly, Paul makes friends with some low people in high places and gets involved in a real estate scam. And yes, there’s a girl. Lots of drinking and run-ins with the locals ensue.

The real estate scam gives our hero an ethical dilemma which dominates much of the movie. Though interesting, it’s rather tame as diabolical movie plans go. It’s only a diversion, anyway. Our real focus is on whether or not Paul will be able to steal the gangster’s moll, a young pretty blonde, as cinematic rules dictate she must be. Her name is Chenault (Heard), a free spirit who takes a liking to Paul but, as indicated, belongs to Sanderson (Eckhart) who is running this get-rich-quick scheme.

As proof that the whole real estate issue is just a front for the love story, it abruptly disappears before there’s a resolution. Instead, we suddenly shift the narrative back to the failing newspaper. It’s almost as if someone realized mid-stream, there is an untapped, potentially interesting story that needs more attention and abandoned the one they were telling in its favor. This makes The Rum Diary a bit of a mess, narratively. On top of that, the ending is weak and rushed. It just kind of stops playing and gives us some subtitles that complete the tale.

Fortunately, there are several saving graces. First, as disjointed as our saga is, it bounces along in an enjoyable manner. It’s most fun when Paul and fellow reporter/roommate Bob Sala (Rispoli) are palling around, getting into one precarious situation after another. The funniest of these being how they decide to drive Bob’s car after its front seat has been ripped out by some angry locals. There’s also third roomy Moberg (Ribisi) who is only occasionally in the apartment, only shows up to work to pick up his paycheck (we find out he can’t be fired) and is always drunk. Second, the three men in these roles are marvelous. Ribisi is particularly good and leaves us wishing he had more screen time. That said, Johnny Depp is the draw. Sans his now trademark goofy wigs and cartoonish makeup he is still a joy to watch.

The work turned in by Depp and his cast mates, including the always underappreciated Richard Jenkins, means the narrative issues can be pushed to the margins as we follow their misadventures. They can’t be ignored completely since the switch in focus is jarring and unfulfilling. However, it still makes for a good time. What it lacks in storytelling acumen is made up for by giving us characters that are ultimately smart, but in a very dumb way.

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