PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA – Review
The fact-inspired film PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA is a prime example of why a good director matters. As some sage once said, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
The film is first American film shot in Cuba since Castro’s 1959 revolution, and there is so degree of thrill in seeing Hemingway’s home and the actual locations he frequented. In fact, the story takes place in 1959, with true-story basis loaded with dramatic potential. Sadly, producer-turned -director Bob Yari fails to put to good use to those elements, along with a strong cast. Only the most determined Hemingway devotees will get much out of Yari’s dull, pedestrian film.
Giovanni Ribisi plays young newspaperman Ed Myers (a stand-in for the real journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, on whose memoir of his friendship with Hemingway the story is based). Ed writes a fan letter of sorts to his idol Hemingway, whom he credits with inspiring him as a writer, but loses nerve about sending it. His co-worker girlfriend Deb (Minka Kelly) finds the discarded letter and mails it to the author anyway. Shockingly, Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) calls the young writer at work – which Myers at first assumes is a prank. Once convinced the call is genuine, Myers accepts Hemingway’s invitation to visit him in Cuba for some fishing. A friendship is launched, as the legendary author begins to mentor the young journalist he calls Eddie or just “kid,” and Myers, who grew up in an orphanage, finds a father figure in the man everyone calls Papa.
Adrian Sparks, who also played Hemingway on stage, has an amazing resemblance to the author and does an uncanny job impersonating him. Ribisi is a bit old to play the young journalist but still manages to capture the right sense of youthful awe anyway. In fact, all the acting is good. Joely Richardson is also fine as Hemingway’s wife Mary, a former journalist who harbors a bit of resentment at being overshadowed by her famous husband. Minka Kelly has a rather thankless role as Myer’s girlfriend, stuck in the 1950s gender role of quietly pining for marriage, a part that reminds one a bit of Grace Kelly’s role in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”
The true story-based subject offered a wealth of material for an interesting, though-provoking film, all of which Yari leaves unused. The Hemingway that the young journalist finds fulfills his best and worst expectations of the legend’s masculine image. The film briefly, obliquely, raises the idea of famous people adopting the persona expected of them as a public mask behind which the real person hides – but then never pursues it. In hard-drinking scenes, hostility and ego surface between husband and wife, again a subject skimmed but never explored in depth.
As a long-time producer, Yari worked on such projects as “Crash,” “The Painted Veil” and “The Illusionist.” This is only his second directorial effort, the first being a 1989 thriller titled “Mind Games.” Yari also served as producer on “Papa” but clearly should have hired a more experienced, and skilled, director to helm the film. Set in a remarkable time and place, and story involving striking historic figures – not just Hemingway, but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, mobster Santo Trafficante, and Cuba dictator Batista (to say nothing of revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara), how could this not be an interesting film? In other hands, this could have been an excellent exploration of fame or its unique time, an insightful drama or even a taut thriller. Instead, it is mostly just dull.
As the first Hollywood film shot in Cuba in over 50 years, the locations shots could have been the saving grace of this movie. There is a certain thrill in seeing exterior and interior scenes shot at Hemingway’s actual home, now a museum, and famous Havana locations. The film does look gorgeous, and seeing the Havana streets and all those ’50s cars is a treat. The Cuban locations should at least have given the film an authentic sense of time and place, but again Yari fails to impart that. Instead, the film looks like it could have been shot in Florida or even California. After a brief teaser scene early on, the Cuban revolution is reduced to a backdrop for Hemingway’s personal story and a plot device to get him out of Cuba. Every scene looks a bit too bright, a bit too pretty and color-drenched, for the dramatic events unfolding. The actors do their best, but the plodding, unimaginative direction reduces the film to a dull docu-drama, instead of the searing, insightful drama of a unique time, place, and iconic individuals that it could have been.
The source material is so good, that one has to wish a real director will give it another shot, especially with Adrian Sparks in the Hemingway role again. That’s unlikely, especially with the same access to Cuban locations, but one can always dream.
PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA opens on April 29th, 2016