In his first scene in this strained biographical drama, Ernest Hemingway says, “I got your letter. It’s a good letter.” Then: “Do you like to fish?” And then, when Giovanni Ribisi’s Hem-dazzled reporter shies away from the chance to pilot Papa’s boat: “Kid, the only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take.”
It’s like Hemingway himself is competing in one of those Bad Hemingway contests, trying to out-terse, out-truth, and out-man all comers. That is, until he’s unmanned toward the end. In a caustic — but unconvincing — dustup with wife Mary (Joely Richardson), Adrian Sparks’s Hemingway actually has to dash about with a revolver and yawp, “There’s nothing for me in this life anymore! I can’t write! I can’t fuck!”
The script is based on screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc’s actual experience befriending the author, but words that might have lived in real life here die on the screen. The familiar story of a fan dismayed to see the sad truth of an icon gets filled out with some pre-revolution skulduggery: The FBI and the Mafia pressure Ribisi’s reporter to betray Hemingway, whom they suspect of weapons smuggling. Meanwhile, Castro’s insurgents lead assaults in the background, inspiring Hemingway to proclaim, “Goddamn war!”
But all that’s secondary to the hero worship/idol smashing, with the Cubans barely present and the reporter’s lover (Minka Kelly) showing up at the finale to declare she’s not an “accessory” despite not having clocked ten minutes of screen time. The sunsets are gorgeous — the film was shot in Cuba — and Ribisi is suitably conflicted, and Sparks’s Great Man is at first touchingly deflated. But then the script makes him a drunken child. Low point: Sparks has to pass off the apocryphal tale of Hemingway writing the six-word novel “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn” as a party trick.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba
Directed by Bob Yari
Yari Film Group
Opens April 29, AMC Loews Lincoln Square