Jonathan Rich writes for Bleeding Cool…
Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba
Directed by Bob Yari
Starring Adrian Sparks, Giovanni Ribisi, Minka Kelly and Joely Richardson
109 minutes, Rated R for language, sexuality, violence and some nudity
Many times during the two hour historical vacation biopic that is Bob Yari's Papa, guests come and go through the real life entrance to Ernest Hemmingway's Cuban villa and pass a famous portrait of the author in the foyer. Sadly, that image proves as a slight to the film as it unconsciously forces the audience to realize this film is one that is confused about its own identity.
That revelation should come as no real surprise, as the title on the poster does not match the title card Papa: A True Story at the start of the picture, and the film which follows focuses more on Giovanni Ribisi's character than on the prolific wordsmith audiences presumably paid to learn more about.
To be fair Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba, or whatever you want to call it, does focus primarily on the titular character's time living in Cuba and proudly flaunts its pedigree as the first film to shoot on location there since 1959, but aside from providing many beautiful landscapes the end product does not offer anything entertaining in terms of the man and his mythos.
The story follows orphaned Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) from his roguish upbringing and love of Hemmingway's writing to his career as a reporter at the Miami Globe where he writes a letter to his literary mentor thanking him for inadvertently serving as a role model, father figure, and friend during his times of need. Myers' co-worker Debbie (Minka Kelly) finds her friend's unmailed correspondence and puts it in the post to set forth a chain of events which finds the journalist meeting his idol, forming an actual friendship with the legend and being welcomed into Hemmingway's inner circle. Soon after, Myers becomes a sought after pawn by the FBI, the Cuban mafia, and even Hemmingway's current wife Mary (Joely Richardson) as the author battles fits of depression and even dementia as the coals of the Cuban revolution heat up.
Notice how Hemmingway is not the main character in that synopsis? That is the main misstep this production makes, but not the only one. Character actor Adrian Sparks provides ample flesh (there is a lot of nude swimming in this film) for director Yari to hang his story on, but sadly the character is never really fleshed out. Every time Sparks appears on screen it seems as if he is acting in a one-man show about Hemmingway with Spark's widened eyes and over-the-top emoting appears aimed at the back row of a performance hall rather than interacting with any of the other characters on screen.
In contrast, Joely Richardson gives a convincingly emotional portrayal of Hemmingway's troubled spouse who is caught between her genuine affection for the man behind the myth and the unfortunate reality of the prolific producer of prose battling both early senility, writer's block, and the weight of his public persona.
Sadly, Ribisi doesn't offer the same in his character or his attempt to capture it. Often in Papa, the editor cuts back to Ribisi's almost permanent wordless facial expression best described as 'hound dog indifference' simply to remind the audience Myers is still in the room when pivotal events take place.
A possible reason for this is that just before the credits roll a title card informs the audience Myer's character is based on an actual person named Denne Peticlerc who befriended Hemmingway in the 1950s and wrote the script on which the film was based. The end result is that instead of experiencing an engaging 'true story' about Hemmingway, the audience has to wonder what other important facts were changed in the pursuit of telling the tale and why they even bothered to buy a ticket to see this in the first place.
Perhaps a better and more informative lesson on Hemmingway would be to watch the movie trailer then embark on an hour long TV biography on the man who famously wrote The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. You would be better informed about Hemmingway's entire life and works, and presumably be more entertained as the best moments and lines are salvaged in the two minute preview.
You would, however, miss out on a revealing turn by Minka Kelly, but she is almost an after-thought in terms of the story on display in Papa. Kelly goes skinny dipping in the ocean once and romps in the sheets with Ribisi several times, though not even that nor a cameo from the writer's actual granddaughter Mariel Hemmingway in one throwaway scene helps this film find its identity or saves it from being worth more than old newspaper clippings repurposed as fish wrap.
Jonathan Rich is a freelance journalist, high school educator, and self-professed comic book nerd working in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He writes about entertainment and pop culture for various print and web publications, including bleedingcool.com.