'Papa: Hemingway in Cuba': Film Review

Hemingway in Cuba - H 2016
Courtesy of Yari Film Group
The settings are authentic, but the dialogue isn't.

Bob Yari's drama about the real-life friendship between Ernest Hemingway and a young journalist was the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

Let's hope that the burgeoning normalization in relations with Cuba leads to better movies than Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, the first Hollywood film to shoot on the island since the 1959 revolution. Although based on a true story, this drama directed by Bob Yari about the relationship between a young journalist and the aging Ernest Hemingway never rings true despite the authenticity of its setting.

The film's autobiographical screenplay was written by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006. His cinematic stand-in, named Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), is a young reporter working at the Miami Herald who sends his literary idol a fan letter in the late 1950s. He's taken aback when he soon receives a phone call from the Great Man himself, who tells him, with signature Hemingway terseness — or a parody of it, depending on your generosity — "I got your letter. It's a good letter." He then asks, "You like to fish?"

That question serves as an invitation for Myers to come to Cuba and stay with Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) and his fourth wife Mary (Joely Richardson) at their lavish estate. The gruff, boisterous writer takes his young acolyte out for deep-sea fishing upon their first meeting, and he and his wife demonstrate a predilection for nude bathing, a practice that Myers soon adopts as well.

"This is how God made me," is the repeated explanation.

In between bar-hopping and boisterous conversations about life, love and writing, the two men witness a fierce gun battle between student revolutionaries and government forces, with veteran war journalist Hemingway leading the pair perilously close to the action.

It quickly becomes apparent that the 59-year-old Hemingway is in poor health both physically and emotionally, drinking heavily and longingly eyeing the readily available firearms. His relationship with his wife also is deeply troubled, with the pair frequently erupting into violent arguments. But none of this stops him from dispensing such pearls of wisdom on the adoring visitor as, "The only value we have as human beings is the risks we're willing to take."

The storyline verges into unconvincing thriller territory when it's revealed that Hemingway is suspected by the Cuban government of gunrunning. He's also looked upon suspiciously by the Mafia, as made clear by an encounter between Myers and mob boss Santo Trafficante, Jr. (James Remar, in a vivid cameo).

The film benefits greatly from the largely unchanged Cuban locations, including Hemingway's actual home, Finca Vigia (now a museum). But the storyline and dialogue, as you might have already discerned, feels strained, and such subplots as Myers' struggle to make a commitment to his girlfriend (Minka Kelly) — you can rest assured Papa dispenses some advice about that as well — fail to sustain interest.

Ribisi is effective as the eager journalist, and Richardson delivers a vibrant turn as Hemingway's beleaguered wife. But Sparks, despite his undeniable physical resemblance, never quite projects the necessary charisma for his larger-than-life character.  When his Hemingway lurches for his gun in a desperate suicide attempt, you don't particularly want to stop him.

Distributor: Yari Film Group
Production: Sunstone Film Productions, Yari Film Group
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Joely Richardson, Adrian Sparks, Minka Kelly, Shaun Toub, James Remar
Director: Bob Yari
Screenwriter: Denne Bart Petitclerc
Producers: Amanda Harvey, Bob Yari, Weezie Melancon, Michael Pacino
Executive producers: William J. Immerman, Kirk Shaw
Director of photography: Ernesto Melara
Production designer: Aramis Balebona Recio
Editor: Glen Scantlebury
Costume designer: Jane Anderson
Composer: Mark Isham
Casting: Libia Batista, Odalys Garcia

Rated R, 109 minutes