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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 2.0° F  Fair
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Funny, messy The Rum Diary brings art-house Johnny Depp to the multiplexes
Going, going, gonzo
A frisky, funky Hunter S. Thompson adaptation.
A frisky, funky Hunter S. Thompson adaptation.

Johnny Depp spent years building the kind of résumé that keeps actors from being movie stars, roles featuring weird hair and silly voices. Then he changed exactly nothing in his approach and scored a few blockbusters. Now those same movies Depp was making years ago, instead of opening in art houses, are opening on 2,000 screens.

"Hollywood logic" is an oxymoron - and the wide release of The Rum Diary is only the latest example. In 1998, Johnny Depp starred in a demented adaptation of a work by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which grossed just $10 million. Since then, Depp has blown up into a megastar - which somehow translates, in Hollywood logic, into a reason that his appearance in a slightly less demented Thompson adaptation has a shot at scoring in multiplexes. The Rum Diary is frisky and funky, but it's far from a mainstream romp.

Loosely based on Thompson's early years as a journalist circa 1960, The Rum Diary casts Depp as Thompson's surrogate, a young writer named Paul Kemp. Kemp accepts a job at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the atmosphere is less than quietly professional. The only "normal" person Paul meets is an enterprising public-relations man named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who thinks Paul has the writing skills to help Sanderson and his friends turn the island into a gold mine.

Paul's moral awakening - as he comes to understand Sanderson's plan - becomes the narrative fulcrum of The Rum Diary, and that's where the film is at its clunkiest. Writer-director Bruce Robinson plays Paul's encounter with an impoverished pocket of San Juan with deadly seriousness, and stops things in their tracks to have the cabal of developers cackle over their capitalistic scheme. The Rum Diary may be intended to mark the birth of a unique voice challenging "the bastards," but Robinson doesn't always know how to integrate righteous indignation into the story of a bunch of crazed expatriates.

When The Rum Diary is a purely episodic tale of expatriate games, it's got plenty of offbeat charm. Depp brings wide-eyed incredulity to his performance as a guy who had no idea what kind of twisted world he was getting himself into. In fitting gonzo fashion, the film finds its footing when Paul's misadventures take on a hallucinogenic haze, as in an experiment with acid in which a coworker's tongue appears to turn into a serpent.

In all its conspicuous perversity, liberal social conscience and fragmented reality, The Rum Diary may be a more perfectly pitched screen translation of Thompson than Fear and Loathing was. It's messy, quirky, funny and angry. And because it has a star whose movies have made a lot of money, Hollywood is trying to sell it to people who almost certainly won't want it.

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