Everything starts out sunny and beautiful, with lots of nude swimming and deep-sea fishing and serious talks about art and life.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba has already achieved immortality in the land of movie trivia as the answer to this question: What was the first Hollywood movie shot in Cuba after Castro’s rise to power?
Unfortunately, apart from touristic interest of seeing real locations in Cuba, including Hemingway’s house Finca Vigía, up on the big screen, Papa doesn’t have much to recommend it. It’s not a terrible movie, but one that persistently settles for mediocrity, and squanders the opportunity to do something interesting with its unique access to a country long off limits to most Americans.
The screenplay, written by Denne Bart Petitclerc, is strictly by the numbers, trotting famous personages before the camera and salting the dialogue with well-known quotes. To be sure you don’t get lost, there’s lots of expo-speak and repetition of key bits of information, as if there was going to be a quiz later (if you didn’t know who Santo Trafficante was going in, you’ll certainly know it by the time the house lights come up).
Petitclerc is a central character in the story, given the more movie-friendly name of “Ed Myers” (Giovanni Ribisi, who does a nice job of low-key acting and hiding the fact that he’s 10 years too old for the part). The story begins in 1957 as Myers, working as a journalist in Miami, decides to write a letter to his idol, Ernest Hemingway. Ever the self-critic, Myers keeps throwing these missives away, until his fellow reporter and girlfriend Deb (Minka Kelly) fishes one out of the wastebasket and sends it to Hemingway. (Poor Kelly is stuck in a thankless role as the perfect 1950s wife, even without a ring on her finger: She’s always supportive and available but never makes any demands that might hold her man back—plus, she knows him better than he knows himself, and is quite the looker besides.)
Myers is more surprised than anyone when Hemingway calls up and invites him to Cuba. (You know it’s Hemingway on the line because he speaks like a bad parody of himself: “I got your letter. It was a good letter. You like to fish?”) The next thing you know, Myers is flying down to Havana in his best tropical suit, and after a few trips back and forth, finds himself part of the household of Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) and his wife Mary (Joely Richardson). Everything starts out sunny and beautiful, with lots of nude swimming and deep-sea fishing and serious talks about art and life. Myers, orphaned as a child, is looking for a surrogate family, and the Hemingways are in need of a young admirer (everyone calls Myers “kid”), so he becomes a sort of Hausfreund—not that Myers is sleeping with Mary (so far as we know), but that when he is present, the two Hemingways get along better with each other.
Guns and talk of suicide also make an early appearance, laying on the foreshadowing with a trowel. As the story progresses, everything gets darker, with impotence at the typewriter—and in the bedroom—leading to terrible Hemingway-on-Hemingway fights that are repetitive, unpleasant, and boring, without doing anything to illuminate the characters or drive the story. The FBI pops up (relating to that old story about J. Edgar Mary, which may or may not be true), and headlines inform us of the progress of the Cuban Revolution, but none of it seems terribly important next to the high drama taking place in the Hemingway household. Even a set piece of the 1957 student attack on the Presidential Palace, staged in and around the actual Palace, fails to create much of an impression, demonstrating that location shooting is no substitute for good writing and direction.
Director Bob Yari has enjoyed a substantial career as a producer, but this is only his second film as a director (the first was the 1989 family-in-peril thriller Mind Games), and nothing about Papa suggests that he has either a natural or a cultivated talent for directing film. Yari does come up with some memorable images, but if more than one person is taking part in a scene, he doesn’t know how to use the camera to create a sense of three-dimensional space and indicate the relationships among the different characters. That’s the kind of skill you don’t notice until it’s not there, but when it is lacking, nothing on the screen works properly.
The consequences of Yari’s lack of directorial expertise are compounded by the fact that the key role of Hemingway is played by someone whose main acting career has been on stage rather than film roles. Sparks played Hemingway on stage in 2005 in John DeGroot’s one-man play Papa (which probably why he was cast in this role), and he looks the part well enough. However, acting for the camera requires a somewhat different skill set than acting on stage, and much of Sparks’ screen acting experience has been in small television parts identified by function rather than name, e.g., “Dock site guard,” “Veteran,” or “Judge #2.” Judging by the evidence in Papa, Sparks doesn’t know how to carry a major film role, and Yari doesn’t know how to direct him to do so effectively.
Papa often feels like a collection of discrete parts rather than one unified whole, and what’s worse is that so many of those parts have been done better elsewhere. The tollbooth scene in The Godfather blows a similar execution sequence in this film out of the water; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did a far superior job of portraying a bickering couple who could attack without mercy but still loved each other; The Godfather Part II gave a stronger sense of actually being in Cuba during the popular uprisings against the Batista regime, despite being filmed in other locations And so it goes: Take away the tourist views of Cuba, and you are left with a lot of stuff that just isn’t very good.
To end on a positive note, here’s a piece of St. Louis–related trivia. Mary Welsh Hemingway (Richardson’s character) was the only of Hemingway’s four wives neither born nor raised in St. Louis. She was born in Minnesota and covered World War II from Paris and London, where she met Hemingway. Of Hemingway’s other wives, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and Martha Gellhorn were born in St. Louis, and Pauline Pfeiffer moved there with her family at age 6. | Sarah Boslaugh