Film Review – Papa: Hemingway in Cuba
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba
Writer, war correspondent, big game hunter, fisherman, drunkard. Ernest Hemingway was many things to many people. Whether you love him for his writing style or hate him for his old school machismo, it’s hard to argue that “Papa” did things his own way. He was a character all his own, which makes it all the more disappointing that Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015) comes up short in telling his story. This is a thin recounting of Hemingway’s later life and the darkness that would consume him. If there’s a definitive film about this man, this is not it.
We never get a sense of what we’re supposed to gain here. Director Bob Yari skips over aspects of Hemingway but never establishes what the point is. We follow a journalist named Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) in Miami in the late 1950s. Early on we learn that Ed was abandoned by his father, retreating into the works of Hemingway as a means of escape. On a whim, Ed wrote a letter to his idol explaining how much his work meant to him. This letter found its way to Hemingway, and out of the blue he called Ed to express his gratitude and to invite the lad to his home in Havana, Cuba.
This event was based on the true story of Denne Bart Petitclerc, who did in fact write Hemingway a letter and was invited to Cuba. Petitclerc is credited as the screenwriter. Why his character is renamed “Ed Myers” is a mystery to me. Another mystery is the relationship between these two people. What was it about Ed/Denne that drew Hemingway’s attention? Surely he must have received hundreds, if not thousands of fan letters, what was so special about this one? It’s a strange dynamic that never gets fleshed out. Does Hemingway see Ed as a son, a friend, or just an acquaintance to project his past glories onto?
That’s just one of the many questions that get asked but is never answered. The narrative has a disjointed structure as its switches gears too often, covering many topics but never delving into any of them. We assume that the crux involves Ed’s relationship to Hemingway, but that get sidetracked by other plot points. Fidel Castro’s uprising is mentioned, with Ed witnessing a shootout firsthand. There’s Ed’s involvement with the FBI and mafia, both interested in Hemingway’s political views. Hemingway’s severe alcoholism and depression causes conflict with his wife Mary (Joely Richardson). We also have scenes of Hemingway conspiring with mysterious contacts about the present conflict. And we can’t forget Ed’s relationship with his girlfriend Debbie (Minka Kelly), who plays the neglected lover with clichéd perfection. There are all these themes and side stories operating simultaneously, none of which flow together or reach any type of narrative resolution. By mentioning so many topics, the production fails to examine any of them in depth.
The disjointed feeling has a lot to do with the editing. Scenes are not stitched together well enough for us to understand how we got from one point to another emotionally. Conversations are broken up from way too many angles. A scene of two people talking feel jagged and unpolished. Scenes are juxtaposed almost randomly. This is expressed during the sequence where Mary organizes a surprise birthday party for Hemingway. The scene begins with Ed, Mary, and friend Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub) singing to Hemingway as his old wartime friends make an unexpected visit. The atmosphere is light and happy, everyone appears to be enjoying themselves. In the very next scene, the group is having a meal around a table, and the tone is drastically changed for the worse, ending with an explosive argument. How the party went from joyous to toxic doesn’t make sense cinematically, the transition was too abrupt. Examples like this happen constantly, to the point of distraction.
Adrian Sparks plays a good Ernest Hemingway. He has the look and feel of a person who has lived a full life. Sparks exudes the charm and destructive personalities with equal clarity. If there is one aspect worth buying a ticket for, it would be Sparks’ performance. When we first see him, his size dramatically blocks the sun from the camera’s view, hinting at his legendary reputation. The chemistry he has with Giovanni Ribisi doesn’t quite work on screen, however. At 41, Ribisi seems a bit too old to play such a naïve character – it was hard to believe that someone like him would be so wet behind the ears. Their dynamic is indicative of the film as a whole: multiple pieces that don’t fit right.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is a missed opportunity to study one of the biggest literary names of the 20th century. By restricting the focus to this one time and place, we only get glimpses of who this person was. There’s very little about him other than the “troubled genius.” I wish there were more to say, but we’re not given much else to work with. I’m left with simply asking: So what?