If you want to make a film about Hunter S. Thompson, you have to include Johnny Depp. That’s just a rule. Terry Gilliam got it right with the star back with ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ and Depp’s friendship with the late author helps the authenticity of the performance.

When it came time to adapt ‘The Rum Diary,’ everyone knew who was getting the call.

Journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) pursues an opportunity for employment at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. His editor, Ed Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is less than enamored with his new candidate, but has few options other than to hire the chronically drunk journalist. Kemp is hardly living a carefree life, though. He shares an apartment with Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) a photographer who is content to drift along and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) a hopelessly hammered crime and religion reporter (is that even a real category?).

Kemp has very menial work at the paper, but he is eventually approached by a fellow named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). He wants a skilled writer to support his ambitious real estate ventures, despite the fact that it would displace many poor people. Needing money, Kemp takes the job but falls for Sanderson’s fiancee, Chenault (Amber Heard).

The inquisitive writer begins poking around in places he shouldn’t (I hope you caught the double meaning there) and gets swept up in some big problems.

Oh yes, and an irresponsible amount of rum is consumed.

If you want to compare this with ‘Fear and Loathing’ (as it is inevitably going to be by many) this doesn’t stack up so favorably. Both stories have similarities. They are both from the life and work of Thompson. They are the not-quite sober misadventures of a writer in an exciting locale. Both of them have elements of a buddy comedy. The former film wins on both accounts. The hallucinations and humor were much stronger with ‘Fear and Loathing’ as was the bond that the characters seemed to share. Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo enabled Depp’s version of Thompson (named Raoul Duke in that story). Here, it’s hard to pinpoint Kemp’s go-to guy. Is it Sala? He’s kind of passive to be much help. Is it Moberg? Ehhh, he’s a bit too damaged by substances and his worldview isn’t exactly enlightened. Depp and his Thompson interpretation is endlessly watchable, but he has to do it more or less on his own this time.

At the same time, Puerto Rico is a stunning backdrop to all of the action. This absolutely (mostly) romanticizes wandering around a strange country back in the 1960’s with very little accountability. Though the San Juan Star is a failing enterprise and Kemp’s work is hardly fulfilling, it looks like a fun situation. Given a time machine and a plane ticket, I would certainly consider the opportunity. Preferably, there would be no need for all of the cockfights, flights from law enforcement and living in squalor that goes on here.

The ending isn’t so much problematic as it is just unceremoniously dumped into our laps. Something happens and that’s pretty much it. ‘Anti climactic’ comes to mind.

Writer/director Bruce Robinson hasn’t directed anything since 1992. His best known and best received film is ‘Withnail and I.’ The subject matter isn’t too far off from this movie, but again, it was done better there.

Special features include: a behind the scenes look, and the back story of ‘The Rum Diary.’

‘The Rum Diary’ is a very flawed, meandering film that still manages to have a lot of good qualities. Where it really suffers is in comparison to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’ A lot of this seems like it’s faintly echoing some of that story. A dynamic actor playing a fascinating character in an environment filled with potential can go a long way to partially overcome some of these flaws.

Keep your expectations in check and you might be able to take a very inexpensive tropical vacation in the comfort of your own home.

The rum is your call, though.

Rated R                     120 minutes                    2012

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When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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