“Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” the “first Hollywood feature shot in Cuba since The Revolution,” gives us a portrait of the great writer in decline, a man of human dimensions.
This isn’t the Ernest Hemingway of myth, though he’s certainly living off it. The war correspondent, world traveler, safari-loving Great White Hunter still loves deep sea fishing and still closes down the bar, regaling one and all with his larger-than-life tales.
But this Hemingway, from its casting to the story about him it tells, is in every way smaller-than-life. And seriously, who wants to see that?
Producer and erstwhile self-named studio owner Bob Yari (“Crash,””Thumbsucker”) turns director for this adaptation of Denne Bart Petitclerc‘s memoir of meeting and befriending the Great Writer during his final years.
The story goes that Petitclerc, renamed Ed Myers here, is a Hemingway worshipper and Miami newspaper reporter who wrote him an adoring/fawning fan letter. Ed (Giovanni Ribisi) touched on his orphaned childhood, his dreams of becoming a writer, and told Hemingway “You gave me hope.”
Our image of the gruff “man’s man” who would laugh at such “womanly” sentiments takes its first hit when Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) is touched enough by the letter to call “the Kid” up. Hemingway the sentimentalist invites Ed the fanboy down to Havana.
It’s 1957, and the American is “the biggest tourist attraction in Cuba,” living in his famous house, “Finca Vigia,” taking his famed fishing yacht Pilar out to chase tuna and swordfish.
His meals are the moveable feasts of legend, surrounded by friends who never tire of his war/safari/sexual conquest/plane crash stories. His wife, Mary (Joely Richardson) however, is of another mind. She may be “my perfect pocket-Rubens,” but she’s also an accomplished woman who supports him but bristles at his petulant need to be the only center of attention.
Their nights are spent at this or that mob-owned hotel bar, downing tropical drinks and bending ears.
Ed sees Two Cubas upon his arrival, the poverty of the vast majority, the wealth of the Battista-government and mob-connected few. Soldiers are everywhere, plainclothes policemen in suits and sunglasses are rounding up agitators.
And this fellow Castro is in the hills, threatening to upend it all.
Ed also sees two Hemingways, the bear of a man who exudes confidence in every gesture, and the fearful writer at the end of his tether, facing his 59th birthday with fear and his blank typewriter pages with terror.
The Kid gets fishing lessons, writing lessons (“It’s the Power of Less.”) and life lessons from the Old Man.
“The only value we have as human beings is the risks we’re willing to take!”
So they dash off to see a shoot-out with student terrorists (summary executions follow), with Hemingway still a cagey get-close-to-the-action war reporter.
And every now and then, Papa lets on that he’s losing it, that his father’s way out (“Killed himself. Couldn’t take it any more.”) is very much on his mind.
“He may be crazy,” the war-wounded poet pal Evan Shipman (Shaun Taub) warns, “but no way do we want him cured.” The world still needs Papa’s genius.
“Hemingway in Cuba” lives and dies on its “Papa,” and Yari did himself no favors by cutting corners there. Stage actor and veteran bit player Adrian Sparks has the barrel-chested look. And his voice is actually closer to the real Hemingway’s than that of better actors who have played him — George C. Scott in “Islands in the Stream,” Stacy Keach on TV. Sparks has more of a higher-pitched bark than a growl. Listen to Papa on youtube clips narrating his documentary, “The Spanish Earth,” for instance. Short sentences delivered in a clipped bark. But Sparks doesn’t spark.
Hemingway was an old 59 at a time long before 59 was the new 45. But this guy looks ancient. And sorry to be cruel, but he has all the screen presence of a third runnerup in a Key West Hemingway look-alike contest.
Scenes feel stage-bound, with Victorian melodramatic speeches, declarations, etc. A cute birthday moment — Mary singing and vamping to Marlene Dietrich’s wartime torch song, “Lili Marlene,” works. Dietrich was a Hemingway favorite. But other scenes are laugh-out-loud awkward, thanks to arch and clumsy dialogue.
A side-story — Ed is neglecting his lover, the fellow newspaper employee (Minka Kelly) whom he lured away from her husband — is given short shrift.
As is Hemingway’s sympathy for Castro’s cause. That can’t have stood him in good stead with America’s conservatives. Or Cuba’s.
James Remar classes up the third act as the mob boss Santo Trafficante, but an account of Papa’s troubles with “the Feds” seems shoehorned in and overloaded with conjecture. Some have used that to explain his late-life depression and paranoia.
The novelty of “first Hollywood film made in Cuba” wears off quickly. The culture preserved in amber, just the way it was when Hemingway lived there, is strikingly captured — ancient hotels and bars, just as they were pre-Revolution. But the cheapness of the production peeks through, even there. There’s one glaring botched shot (Lens flare run amok?) which would never have made the final cut of a better-financed film. Details like the anachronistic long hair of several players, a fishing hat not designed until the ’80s and vintage cars wearing ’80s mag wheels in 1957 stand out.
And don’t get me started about a car ride in a nicely-preserved Pontiac convertible that sports a Chevrolet-insignia’d dashboard and steering wheel. That’s how Cubans have kept those classics on the road — DIY, scavenging parts from other vehicles. They weren’t doing that when the cars were new, in Hemingway’s day.
But none of this would have been enough to kill the picture had Yari spent some cash and landed a charismatic, age-appropriate movie star leading man. Vincent D’Onofrio, maybe. Randy Quaid, if he gets back on his meds.
As it is, “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” will endure only as a last celluloid document to a Cuba before normalized relations and the Burger Kings, Ritz Carltons, Starbucks and Forever 21s move in and take it over. The real Papa would have at least approved of that.
MPAA Rating:R for language, sexuality, some violence and nudity
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Adrian Sparks, Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly, James Remar
Credits: Directed by Bob Yari, script by Denne Bart Petitclerc. A Yari Film Group release.
Running time: 1:49