It's sad when passion projects are as flimsy in execution as is The Rum Diary; and it's downright heartbreaking when passion projects that took as much personal effort and sacrifice as The Rum Diary demanded of writer-director Bruce Robinson and star-producer Johnny Depp turn out to be as half-assed and noncommital as The Rum Diary. Adapted from an early work by the late Hunter S. Thompson that the author proceeded to ignore for nearly 40 years before Depp himself spearheaded its publication in 1998, the film is utterly honest and sincere in its intentions: this is uncut hagiography, an annoyingly loose adaptation of what was already something like a counterfactual autobiography (meaning that Robinson's script is already at least two degrees of separation from what we could reasonably call "a true story") that treats its subject with such worshipful distance that it reduces the complex, fascinatingly broken man who used the very word "gonzo" to describe his take-no-prisoners-including-oneself ethos of truth-seeking, to a plaster saint, someone whose flaws and idiosyncrasies are smoothed over, or worse still, turned into quirky character traits, en route to making a film that says nothing remotely interesting about its subject or its place in history. I do not imagine that the man himself would have been terribly impressed.

Now, there are two cases that could apply: in one of them, The Rum Diary is a good, smartly-made film that gets Thompson wrong, and I am simply responding in grumpy fanboyism. That movie would be a comfort; I would do anything to have seen that The Rum Diary. For the case that actually applies is very much the worse: Robinson and Depp were so invested in using their movie as a springboard to explore the Life of Young Hunter that they seemingly got it in mind that the subject would be enough to put the movie over, and they didn't need to bother with such fussy niceties as compelling characters, sociological insight, technical verve, or the basics necessities of a solidly-built drama (The Rum Diary does not end, so much as it winds down, and in lieu of a denouement, it has a title card telling us that in after years, things went well for the protagonist. The movie ends this way, I mean; in fact, the gutting of the ending is one of the most galling failures of the film as an adaptation).

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1960, there is a young writer, Paul Kemp (Depp, visibly too old to be playing the character as written), who wants... he's not sure, exactly. The chance to get drunk a lot, certainly. The opportunity to do real, meaningful journalism, sure, as a fallback. Not the least among the film's sins - nor, certainly, the greatest - is that in its enthusiasm to get to the point where this thinly-veiled Thompson surrogate transcends into the shit-kicking genius we know and love, it largely glosses over the far more present issues of where he starts out: Kemp begins opaque, and while Depp's performance, obviously modeled on his justly beloved turn as the Thompson analogue in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, does a fair job of recreating the cadences and urgency of Thompson, it is far too gimmicky and stylised to dig into the role even an inch beneath the surface.

But where were we... Kemp is new to San Juan, working for the nearly-dead San Juan Star under the editorship of a craven ass named E.J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins); he falls in with photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and crazy, drug-addled reporter Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), and a bit later he falls in with smiling land developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who has an awesome new deal to build hotels on an undeveloped island, and since nobody wants him and his partners to do that, he needs a gifted, aspiring writer to find the best way to sugarcoat it. Almost accidentally, Kemp takes the job, but what he really wants is not Sanderson's money, influence, or power, but his hot fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). And as he spends more time amongst Sanderson and the other moneyed sorts, he comes to learn that he really can't stand them, and would rather be a raging alcoholic shit-kicker than one of the Bastards, and you can just tell the way Depp says it that Bastards is a class of people rather than just a simple noun. Which, to Thompson, it basically was.

Problem one: underdeveloped characters. Problem two: underdeveloped and overworked plot. By which I mean, all the events of a linear narrative are in place, and they even take place in the right order, but The Rum Diary never coheres as anything but a set of disconnected incidents. We might rightly wonder if that is what every moment of Hunter S. Thompson's life was like. And yet, for all its considerable sloppiness, Fear and Loathing managed to order its material in something awfully like a meaningful order with actual flow between thoughts. The Rum Diary is, at best, a grab-bag of conceits, none of them explored very fully, except for one that had been better left untouched. Which is that Robinson is hellbent on tying the film's 1960 to the subsequent 50 years of American history, which is here presented as a nearly unending chain of venal, money-hungry amoral animals destroying the world for a quarterly profit. A fine theme and worth pursuing, but perhaps not with the leading dialogue that Robinson puts into the characters, or the crude, programmatic way in which Sanderson is turned into a bad guy out of a 1920s Soviet film, aided considerably by Eckhart's natural oiliness.

Whatever the film's failures as drama, it's at least well mounted: the cast is rarely less than very good, with Jenkins and Ribisi digging the most out of the script (Ribisi's performance a particularly nice balance of playing an annoying character without being himself annoying; or rather, he's insufferable at first but the more we get used to him the more his assortment of tics seem characteristic rather than actorly), and the recreation of period San Juan looks absolutely gorgeous, though shot by Dariusz Wolski with a sort of gauzy atmosphere that he could do in his sleep. So at least there's something to look at while the not-very-interesting plot winds out, being funny but not nearly as funny as it feels like it out to be, and not terribly insightful at all (if the best we can do in 2011 is to make message movies about how in 1960, land developers were greedy and unpleasant, we need us some better radical polemicists), and not terribly interested in doing anything besides give a warm, un-nuanced lover letter to an author who was so utterly unimpressed by that kind of sentimental nonsense.