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Posted on Mon, Nov 7, 2011 : 11:27 a.m.

In 'The Rum Diary' Johnny Depp can't shake the Sparrow off his back

By Ryan Levin

Rum Diary movie.jpg

Giovanni Ribisi, Johnny Depp and Michael Rispoli in 'The Rum Diary'

The latest work by Hunter S. Thompson to be adapted for the screen, 'The Rum Diary,' is better than its dismal opening weekend earnings— despite its meandering story and the lackluster performance by star Johnny Depp.

It's strange to think that Depp's role as the Thompson proxy is one of the weaker elements in the movie. The actor's outspoken adoration for the late novelist and writer gave us great acting as the iconic Raoul Duke in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' but 'The Rum Diary' shows Johnny Depp fallen comfortably into this post-Jack Sparrow on-screen persona.

Depp after Pirates of the Caribbean found himself with a commercially successful and popular character. Half swagger and half stagger, post-Sparrow Depp is the affable rogue, filled with rum and dry wit, with a Jim Carrey-like propensity for twisting his expression into just the right funny face to magnify whatever humorous or astonishing thing is happening just off-screen.

The actor deserves a little indulgence in his newfound commercial success. His early career was marked by a long string of acclaimed financial failures, art-house projects that appealed to Depp's artistic sensibility but never the moviegoing public's collective wallet.

The new 'The Rum Diary' is even a passion project of Johnny Depp's, a return in form of his early years of doing what he wanted—not what filled bank accounts and seats. The movie foundered twice in the development stage, batted down by studio reluctance only to finally be resurrected by Depp's own production company Infinitum Nihil, with British director Bruce Robinson at the helm.

Still, Depp's performance amounts to a mumbled cascade of half-heartedly delivered, barely believable lines just before winding up to throw picture-perfect comic facial expressions in the direction of beautiful people copulating in the Caribbean Sea or a case of the clap so bad it's best described as a round of applause.

Depp plays Paul Kemp, a struggling novelist who takes a newspaper gig in Puerto Rico covering horoscopes and bowling alley scores to fund his carousing and do something with his writing other than poke at a literary career he can't seem to get off the ground.

Kemp's heavy drinking puts him in the company of the island's more colorful residents, and his novelist background attracts the gaze of a corrupt American real estate company who, in a somewhat underdeveloped side-story, plan to use his abilities to sell their aspirations of taking over more square-footage on the island with luxury hotels.

'The Rum Diary' aims to be something of a creation myth for gonzo journalism, but the problem is it can't seem to decide that that's the route it wants to take until near the very end, when the sudden rebellious and inflammatory tendencies of the main character seem a bit too tacked on.

The good news is where Depp languishes, fellow actor Giovanni Ribisi steals every scene he stumbles into, and Aaron Eckhart is a decent stand-in for the long arm of parasitic American business interests. Ribisi plays the frequently truant religious affairs correspondent who looks for all the world like a grown-up Pig-Pen and among other things steals filter bags from a rum distillery to squeeze booze out of with a shaky centrifuge. He grouchily spouts some of the best lines given to any character in the movie.

And though director Robinson luxuriates too freely in the tropical glamor of the Caribbean for a movie with Thompson's more cynical and disruptive overtones, 'The Rum Diary' still has some breakthrough moments of Thompson's literary talent. Though that's when it's not pandering to a presumed short-attention span audience with sight gags of grown men bouncing on each other's laps during a rickety car ride. It's definitely no 'Fear and Loathing.'