Ernest Hemingway must have gotten boatloads of fan mail, and every once in a while he may have replied. That’s how journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc became friends with the great novelist during the final years of his life. Petitclerc sent a letter in 1959 and got a phone call in reply, plus an invitation to come to Cuba and fish. Can you imagine?
That remarkable story is the basis for “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba.” Using a script Petitclerc wrote shortly before his 2006 death, director Bob Yari (producer of “Crash”) has brought the tale to the big screen with a few embellishments, plus a new protagonist. Here, the journalist, played by Giovanni Ribisi, becomes Ed Myers — although Hemingway just calls him “the kid.”
“Papa” is notable for being the first Hollywood film in decades to be shot in Cuba. Beyond that milestone, however, the movie doesn’t leave much of an impression. The most glaring of many distractions is a badly cast title character. With his beard and belly, stage actor Adrian Sparks looks the part — especially when he is lazing around on his fishing boat, his shirt fully unbuttoned. But he completely lacks the verve of a man who embraced adventure — not to mention the charisma of a guy who collected (and sometimes alienated) so many brilliant friends.
Given the film’s weirdly uneven pacing and overly expository dialogue, Sparks doesn’t have much to work with.
Before the call comes from Hemingway, the movie hustles through some of Ed’s past: His father abandoned him as a child; then he gets a job as a reporter, where he starts dating a co-worker (Minka Kelly). Once he meets Hemingway, the two quickly form a father-son bond. When Ed explains that he’s an orphan, Hemingway says, “We’ll be your family, huh kid?” To which Hemingway’s wife (Joely Richardson) adds, “I’m not sure the kid knows what he’s getting himself into.”
To Ed, Hemingway’s life looks like paradise, but that changes after the journalist starts making more frequent trips to Cuba to cover the country’s coming revolution. Ed’s new father figure can be a mean drunk, and he’s a cruel husband. What’s more, he’s paranoid about the FBI following him. (In the movie, as in real life, his fears are warranted.)
On paper, this is an extraordinary story. But the careless production values blunt its impact. The score is obtrusive and generic; the sound editing makes a shootout sound reminiscent of an old Western; continuity errors abound. “Papa” often feels more like a play, as if the actors are straining to emote to the cheap seats. They shouldn’t need to, though, given the script. When Ed, for example, is shown crying in the rain after fighting with Hemingway, we hardly need voice-over explaining that he’s sad.
“Papa” is less a phenomenal true story than a missed opportunity. The director should have listened to the advice Hemingway himself gives the kid: “It’s the power of less.”
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, nudity, sex and some violence. 106 minutes.