'The Rum Diary' review: Sexy, spunky and clever--adjectives that definitely didn't apply to "The Tourist"

The Rum Diary (movie)The Tourist (movie)Johnny Depp

***1/2 (out of four)

Decisions, decisions. Journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) could use his new job at the San Juan Star as a chance to find his voice and recapture his professional enthusiasm. Or he can ditch self-control, indulge drinking habits he describes as “at the upper end of social” and listen to the schmoozing of businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) merely to experience the visual delights of Hal’s fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). That’s pronounced like “Chanel,” in case you were wondering.

The buzz: Paul’s part-time lucidity gives the 1960-set film a forward-moving energy lacked in Depp’s other Hunter S. Thompson adaptation, the freewheeling but slow “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” That said, “Diary” focuses on characters drifting from vice to purpose and back again, and the plot, accordingly, floats along with them. That means everything from a cock fighting ring to a jeweled turtle, and I’m not trying to sound like Stefan on “SNL.”

The verdict: Brimming with woozy, oddball danger, “The Rum Diary” shimmies with the language of a writer who could spin circles around himself and still invite everyone else to hop aboard. That’s a credit to writer-director Bruce Robinson (helming his first feature since 1992’s “Jennifer Eight”), who embraces the dizzy absurdity of characters like Paul’s outrageous, barely coherent colleague Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). What occasionally feels aimless locks into place whenever Depp is forced to navigate a sticky situation, Eckhart flashes his greasy charms or Heard demonstrates effortless sexiness with sophisticated loneliness underneath. “The Rum Diary” is neither vacation nor bender; it’s the enthralling blur of being lost somewhere in the middle.

Did you know? Upon arriving in Puerto Rico, Paul learns that he’ll be reporting on bowling alleys and writing the horoscope page. What's wrong with making all horoscopes bowling-related and killing two birds with one stone?

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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