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MOVIE REVIEW: There's a reason 'The Rum Diary' wasn't released before

The Rum Diary

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

During the last decade of his tumultuous life, writer Hunter S. Thompson struck up (what was for him) an endearing friendship with fellow Kentuckian Johnny Depp. Despite each mans' steadfast nonconformity, they both succeeded in professions where nonconformity is generally frowned upon and/or unrewarded.

Like many creative types do, Depp and Thompson discussed collaborating on future projects and did so somewhat with the film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" where Depp played Thompson. The movie was as trippy as the book; an acid and alcohol-drenched road-trip that eschewed plot in favor of atmosphere.

In "The Rum Diary" -- based on the four-plus-decade old incomplete novel Depp convinced Thompson to finish before his death -- is no "Fear and Loathing" -- which in some ways is good. There is something of a plot; a crime comedy thriller in the vein of Elmore Leonard and Depp plays a character loosely based on Thompson.

"The Rum Diary" was started by Thompson when he was still a neophyte and trying to cut his teeth at a crumbling daily newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico where he fell into a cluster of jaundiced, jaded, hard-drinking, old school journalists. This could go far into understanding the wild man Thompson eventually morphed into; the sick-puppy originator of "gonzo" journalism.

After watching the movie, it's easy to understand why Thompson left the unfinished draft on the shelf all those years ago and why the film's release has been on hold since 2009. While there are a handful of scenes that fit into the twisted "Fear and Loathing" mindset, the majority of the film is played straight and occasionally drifts into uncharacteristic sentimentality. Thompson was many things. but sentimental wasn't one of them and too many of the scenes feel as if they originated with a writer grasping to establish a distinct style and comfortable voice.

For writers -- or anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom -- "The Rum Diary" is a fascinating curio and highly relatable. Who among them hasn't thought of -- or at least contemplated -- writing that Great American novel? Depp's character (Paul Kemp) has already tried it twice and is still in a glass-half-full state of mind when he arrives in San Juan in 1960. He soon discovers he'll be writing the lowly horoscope column and reporting on mainland tourists swarming hotel bowling alleys. Kemp might not be the world's greatest reporter but he knows how to sniff out a good story and give it considerable polish.

Because of a presentable appearance and semi-respectable resume, Kemp immediately attracts the attention of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former newspaper guy whose latent opportunism and nose for deals have turned him into one of Puerto Rico's premier power players. Well-connected, filthy rich and always carefully walking that fine line between authentic confidence and misplaced bravado, Sanderson also enjoys the company of live-in girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), a devastatingly beautiful former New York party girl he has molded into the perfect corporate big-wig hostess and chunk of arm candy.

Ever the idealistic romantic, Kemp catches one glimpse of Chenault and practically wilts. Even when he realizes that Sanderson and his cronies are up to no good, he sticks around with the hope he can spend future mere minutes of alone time in Chenault's company. She -- still not completely bought or sold -- is not yet beyond valuing soul and ethics over a big yacht and an large bank account.

Constantly straddling hard-boiled grit and optimistic sheen, adapter/director Bruce Robinson tries to do what probably no filmmaker ever could: Turn "The Rum Diary" into a cohesive, even flow movie. The first hint that this film was doomed from the start: it stars probably the most bankable actor in the world, yet is being released by an upstart studio with no less than six mid-level production companies chipping in to cover the modest ($45M) budget and again, has been in the can, ready to go, for two years.

If not for the star-struck Depp prodding his friend to finish something that had been rightfully abandoned -- "The Rum Diary" film -- with all of its noble intentions -- would have never been made and remained the not-so-great obscure American novel it was in the first place. (FilmDistrict)