Director: Bob Yari
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Adrian Sparks, Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly, Shaun Toub, James Remar
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexuality, some violence and nudity)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 4/29/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 29, 2016
In a key scene, Papa suggests that, during his time in Cuba, Ernest Hemingway was, to an extent, living out the life of his protagonist from To Have and Have Not. The time was during the Cuban revolution, and the incident is a scene in which Hemingway is on his fishing boat and unloading a trunk filled with weaponry—a "gift," he calls the arsenal, for the country he loves and for its people.
The episode is witnessed by the character who stands in for screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc, who became friends with Hemingway during that time, after writing the author a fan letter. We can take it that there's at least some fact to what the movie portrays. Fact or fiction, that's not really the point, though. The point is that there's a potentially fascinating story here—of Hemingway running guns to Cuba. How in the hell does one screw up something that juicy?
For all of the answers that one wouldn't expect to learn from that question, one need only look to this movie, which treats the fact that Hemingway suffered from some mental health issues as a surprising revelation, while lightly breezing past the legitimately shocking notion that the author was smuggling guns to Castro's revolutionaries. Yes, something is greatly amiss in the movie's evaluation of what is and isn't significant.
Beyond that fatal miscalculation, the entire production is embarrassingly amateurish. The movie's coda makes a point to call attention to the fact that the movie was shot on location in Cuba at the places where Hemingway lived and frequented. Director Bob Yari seems more enamored with the locales than with any of the characters here. There are lingering establishing shots of the exterior and interiors of Hemingway's Finca Vigía plantation home, and the sign above the daiquiri bar where he goes to drown his pain is seen so many times that it might as well have received notice in the end credits. In fact, I think it essentially does during that coda.
As for the human characters, they speak in such a way that their words sound as if the screenplay had been written in English, translated into another language, and then re-translated back into English. The actors are visibly struggling with even the most basic scenes here, but then again, how does an actor convincingly read a line as on-the-nose and blatantly expository as, "What would the head of the mafia want with me?"
The character who says that is Ed Meyers (Giovanni Ribisi, who gives the most convincing performance here), the stand-in for Petitclerc. He grew up without a family, having been abandoned by his father during the Great Depression. In the late 1950s, he writes to Hemingway, and the author responds, inviting him on a fishing trip in Cuba. Meanwhile, Ed is in a romantic relationship with Debbie (Minka Kelly), who provides such unnecessary psychoanalytical insights as stating that the Hemingways are like replacements for the family he never had.
Hemingway, who likes to be called "Papa," is played by Adrian Sparks. The best that can be said of his performance is that he looks the part. Let us be considerate and excuse the rest of the awkward, stilted aspects of his performance as the result of the overwhelming responsibility of having to play a figure as imposing as Hemingway.
Mary, Hemingway's wife at the time, is played by Joely Richardson, and the character's major flaw, as she sees it, is that she is worried about being a nagging "bitch" to her husband. Let us be generous and assume that Richardson's brashly overcooked performance is an act of defiance against reducing such a major character to such a simplistic, sexist caricature. In fact, let's just draw the most likely conclusion: When the performances in a movie are as woefully misguided as they are here, the blame rests with the directorial hand guiding them.
The two characters' eventually constant bickering provides the movie's concept of dramatic heft as it becomes apparent that Hemingway is suffering from severe depression. If the performances and dialogue feel unnatural on their own, one can imagine how falsely those fights come across when the actors are forced to treat Hemingway's suicidal thoughts and promises as a setup for an overblown confrontation/confessional.
The appeal of the idea of this story is apparent, and there's some promise in the early scenes of Papa, as the story lays out its relationships and before the whole thing turns into a torrent of melodrama. The movie eventually reveals itself to be the wrong story, told in as clumsy a way as possible.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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