HAVANA,April 27 Papa: Hemingway in Cuba holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production to shoot on the island nation since 1959. But other film-makers looking to leave their mark need not fret, as there’s still an opportunity to make the first American film shot there since Fidel Castro came to power that isn’t a complete, mortifying embarrassment.
Papa is another biopic-through-the-lens of a young acolyte, similar to the recent debacle Nina, though this time its screenplay was written by the witness himself. Giovanni Ribisi is Ed Myers (name changed from the late Denne Bart Petitclerc), a newspaperman in Miami in the late 1950s. Abandoned by his father at a young age, as we’re told through lugubrious narration, he turned to the books of Ernest Hemingway while looking for a father figure.
He writes an impassioned note to Hemingway and one day he receives a phone call. “I got your letter. It’s a good letter,” Adrian Sparks’s Hemingway tells him, as if he didn’t see the parody of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – or, worse, he did see it and used that as a guide. “You like to fish?”
With that, Ribisi is off to Cuba to dive for pearls of wisdom and mentorship. He gets that, but is also witness to Papa bickering with his put-upon fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), as he violently rants about creative and sexual impotence. The bearded, larger-than-life writer is a raconteur at dinner, but rages at blank pages at other times, and stares forlornly at prominently placed firearms, which are practically winking at the camera.
Director Bob Yari, a veteran producer directing for the first time in 25 years and releasing the picture through his Yari Releasing Group distribution arm, may have snipped through miles of cinta roja to get to Cuba, but he fails to do anything interesting once there. There’s one brisk montage of Havana street life and a few scenes aboard Papa’s famous fishing boat the Pilar, but most of the time we’re stuck inside Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia.
Sure, Yari was able to shoot at the actual location (now a museum), but the confined space feels less like a bit of insight into one of the 20th century’s greatest artists than a night of cheap dinner theater.
Much of the blame lies with Petitclerc’s hopelessly tone-deaf script. When we first meet Papa, he’s in full Zorba the Greek mode, an exuberant older man bursting with a love of life, but this quickly turns to the tired routine of the dark genius. After witnessing some of the guerrilla fighting, Papa takes his new pupil to a bar and offers this bit of sage wisdom: “God, damn war!”
Later, when he and Mary are fighting, and he tells her to “go to hell”, she fires back: “I’m already there!” Just because the movie is set in the late 1950s, that doesn’t mean the dialogue needs to be ripped from the daytime soaps of the era.
At the one-hour mark, the film gets an extra spin of unnecessary plot. Papa is under the watchful eye of the FBI, and Ribisi’s Myers gets summoned for a sit-down with the shadowy Santo Trafficante (James Remar). “Why would the head of the mafia want to meet with me?” he asks aloud, in case the name doesn’t ring bells.
But it’s worth taking the meeting, because from it comes the revelation that Ernest Hemingway is being persecuted by the United States government due to knowledge of J Edgar Hoover’s taste for wearing women’s clothing. This is played with such severity and ham-fisted importance that one must applaud the sound recording unit for covering up what must have been a set full of chortles.
The film’s worst crime is presenting the Myers’ visits as the origin of Hemingway’s (probably) apocryphal six-word short story, “For sale, baby’s shoes, never worn.” In the spirit of poorly mimicking Hemingway, I’ll offer my six word review: Cuban permits don’t make good films.