The greatest virtue of PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA is that it was filmed in Cuba just after it was re-opened to the United States. It still looks the way it did over 50 years ago, when the story is set, which not too long before the United States embargo, protesting Castro’s revolution, went into place. The second greatest is Giovanni Ribisi as the only slightly fictionalized Miami Globe reporter, Ed Myers, looking for a father figure and finding it in Earnest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), whose nickname was the eponymous Papa. Myers is based on Denne Bart Petticlerc, who, before writing this screenplay, wrote a letter to Hemingway in 1959 to tell him all that the great man’s writing had meant to a boy abandoned by his parents. It was a letter so wonderful that not only did Papa read it 10 times, he called up Myers/Petticlerc at the Globe and invited him on a fishing trip in Cuba.
It is the stuff of legends, a celebrity who is one of Cuba’s main tourist attractions, responding to a fan letter, and then taking him into his family. The film, alas, is not.
Not that this wasn’t a particularly interesting time in Hemingway’s adventure-strewn life. He had just won the Nobel Prize and survived a plane crash in Africa. Either or both, along with a few other wrinkles that will reveal themselves in the course of the story, have landed Papa in a deep depression. He’s been then before, as Mary Hemingway (Joely Richardson) confides to the young man she dubs Lamb, and Papa, Kid. This depression is different, though, as Ed will see in the mood swings of both husband and wife.
Director Bob Yari has the understated panache that nicely mirrors Hemingway’s spare yet evocative prose. In Ribisi, he has an actor that is both hard-bitten, eyes with a lean and hungry look about them cigarette dangling carelessly from his lips in the tropical heat of Miami, yet also quietly star-struck by Hemingway, and disconcerted when the older man confides in him about the perils of fame as they sip daiquiris after a long day chasing game fish. Ribisi has layers upon layers co-existing less than peacefully as they tug at his fear of commitment to Deb (Minka Kelly), the fellow reporter with selective boundaries, and his deep-seated need for belonging that Papa and Mary are offering as surrogate parents, albeit ones that skinny dip with unselfconscious impunity.
The script relies too heavily on exposition by Mary explaining to Ed who the fascinating people around Papa are. The war buddies, the putative revolutionaries, and the poet (Shaun Toub in a melting performance), who picks up the narrative to fill in further backstory. There is also no sense of the urgency demanded in a portrait of a man coming unhinged, even as revolution threatens his home, or when he finds himself trying to outfox the authorities at sea. Then there is the most egregious blunder. For all the pleasure of authenticity found in shooting in Hemingway’s actual home (now preserved as a museum), for all the heady brew of G-men and mobsters playing both sides of the ethics field in an anything goes Cuba, for all the disconcerting scenes of a country moving irrevocably towards revolution, there is the tragedy of Adrian Sparks, an actor who speaks Hemingway’s dialogue as though he were reading it from granite slabs. There is no humanity to this icon who first appears flaunting his paunch with the sun behind him like a halo. He is as stolid as the bronze bust of Hemingway in the Floridita daiquiri bar. He looks the part, but that is all, save for a few moments when we find Papa standing before his typewriter (he worked standing up) and being decimated by the blank page staring back at him with implacable contempt. Richardson finds truth in moments of cooing, and in moments of vitriolic anguish, but her efforts, bouncing off the non-reactive substance that is Sparks, are a travesty as well as a wasted effort. As for the cameo of granddaughter Mariel Hemingway making a cameo in dark wig and glasses, I just felt bad for her.
PAPA: HEMINGWAY IN CUBA could have been a tour de force or even a voyeuristic pleasure, instead it’s a disappointment of the most galling kind. The disappointment of what could have been.