Beautiful images are at war with clichéd writing and weak acting in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” a rare directing effort by long-time producer Bob Yari that should probably have been helmed by someone with a bit more experience in the job. The picture’s being marketed as the first Hollywood film made in Cuba since the Castro revolution, and that does bring some distinction to it: the locations are, for the most part, extremely attractive, and cinematographer Ernesto Melara paints them in bright widescreen colors.
Unfortunately there’s a story going on as well, and that’s where the movie simply collapses. On paper it sounds intriguing: adapted by Denne Bart Petitclerc from his own memoir, it narrates how, as a young Miami reporter (rechristened here as Ed Myers), he was befriended by Hemingway after writing him a heartfelt letter thanking the writer for helping him get through an unhappy childhood and start a journalistic career. Myers is played by Giovanni Ribisi, an exceptional young actor who here gives one of his worst performances; he comes off looking blank and feeble, not only in his scenes with Hemingway, whom he visits at his Cuban villa, but even more in an insipid subplot in which he refuses to commit to his lovely co-worker (Minka Kelly) back in Florida.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Kelly is such an amateurish actress that flummoxes Ribisi, and that might also explain why the Cuban sequences find him in as much distress as the ones in America. Hemingway is played by Adrian Sparks, a veteran whose previous screen appearances—most in minor roles—have been spotty at best. To be fair, he looks the part of the 59-year old author burdened by the expectations that come with prize-winning celebrity and a massive case of writer’s block. But he’s a pretty terrible actor, delivering his dialogue with all the conviction of a player in a small-town historical pageant. He’s at his worst when forced to emote at a high level; those scenes are positively embarrassing. And Joely Richardson is no better as his wife Mary, who veers from flamboyant support of her husband to fury at his self-aggrandizement at the drop of a hat.
To be fair, it’s hard to imagine that the finest thespians in the world could have made anything of lines that sounded hackneyed when you first heard them, perhaps in 1950s melodramas. There are so many clunky cliches uttered in the course of the movie’s running-time that it’s difficult to believe that they weren’t intended as a parody of bad writing. But they obviously aren’t, and as a result at times you might suspect you’d stumbled into a Hugo Haas picture. Still, Shaun Toub largely overcomes the bad dialogue problem in the supporting role of Hemingway’s friend Evan Shipman, as does James Remar in what amounts to a cameo as mafia kingpin Santo Trafficante.
Remar’s appearance derives from one of the script’s more ludicrous plot threads, in which Hemingway is targeted by the FBI not so much because he’s complicit in funneling arms to the rebel army of Fidel Castro, whose forces were in the middle of their efforts to topple the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista (a story Myers eagerly covers), but because he had dared to repeat a rumor he was told about J. Edgar Hoover’s proclivity to dress in female garb and cavort about with his long-time aide Clyde Tolson. This revelation—which comes late in the movie—is treated as if it were of Shakespearean proportions, and it’s hard not to guffaw at it.
Petitclerc and Yari also take pains to have the depressed Hemingway play around with guns as frequently as they can. Foreshadowing the man’s eventual suicide is one thing, but bludgeoning viewers with repeated reminders about how he would ultimately take his own life screams of—if you’ll excuse the word—overkill.
The saddest thing about “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” is that if the story had been told subtly and thoughtfully, it could have made a substantial film. As it is, however, all the efforts that the craft people (production designer Aranmis Balebona Recio, set decorator Pepe Amat and costumer Jane Anderson) have put into the period detail, which is impressive despite an occasional anachronism, as well as Melara’s lustrous camerawork, come to naught in the face of the clumsy writing, direction and acting. It will not be at all difficult for future pictures shot in Cuba to improve on this sincere but sad misfire.