Imagine having Ernest Hemingway as your mentor. It would probably lead to a pretty good story, right? In the case of writer Denne Bart Petitclerc, who could actually say that the former was true for him, it is surprising that the latter is not so true -- at least not in this adaptation.
PAPA HEMINGWAY IN CUBA, the first film shot in Cuba since the revolution in 1959, has all the qualities of a good story, but seems to be disassembled. Giovanni Ribisi plays Ed Myers, a reporter for the Miami Globe in the late 1950s. In a voice-over narration typical of a memoir, Ed describes the events that led him to meet author Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks). The events match the experiences of the late Petitclerc: he writes Hemingway a letter, describing how the author inspired him to the point where he is today, but he doesn't send the letter -- until his girlfriend, Debbie (Minka Kelly), sends it for him.
In a surprising turn of events, Hemingway responds, calling Ed up and inviting him to Havana to go fishing. This is the start of a mentoring relationship, as Ed continuously travels to visit Papa -- as Hemingway ask him to call him -- and his wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), in effect snubbing Debbie as she tries to connect with him. In several sentimental scenes, Ed describes how he learned to write through Hemingway, learning spelling and grammar by copying his works. But things in Havana are not as perfect as they seem -- as Ed gets to know his new mentor, he realizes that the man's mental health engulfs him -- and the government's plot to ruin the famous author also comes into play.
Petitclerc may have mastered grammar and spelling from Hemingway, but he certainly didn't learn about plot structure. For the first hour of the film, there is essentially no conflict; and the second hour consists of several conflicts vying for attention. Not only that, but the characters' development is weak -- Ed is a pretty flat character, despite a few scruffy attempts to give him an arc concerning marriage and commitment, and Hemingway himself has no immediate impact upon introduction. There are a few good one-liners, and some pretty Havana scenery, but overall, the film is significantly underwhelming -- an irony given that it's about one of the most celebrated authors in American history.
One can only hope that Ribisi and co. find better crafted roles in the future. For those who love Hemingway, you may get a small nugget of enjoyment from watching, but don't expect to be wowed. PAPA HEMINGWAY IN CUBA is playing at the Midtown Cinema starting April 29th.