Film Review: The Bell Tolls for “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”

A reporter's 1950s friendship with Ernest Hemingway is the inspiration for this clunky drama filmed at some of the actual Cuban locations

Although the trailer and the rest of the marketing for this film call it “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” the only on-screen title is “Papa: A True Story.” I’m not sure what to make of this, except that perhaps the film’s makers or its distributors decided not to push their luck by insisting that everything depicted in this fanciful, clunky drama actually happened.

“Papa” was written by a guy named Denne Bart Petitclerc, who befriended Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s and later adapted his posthumously published novel “Islands in the Stream” into a movie. Petitclerc died in 2006, but his screenplay, based on his own experiences, has finally been made into a film. Giovanni Ribisi plays “Miami Globe” reporter Ed Myers, Petitclerc’s analog, who writes a fan letter to Papa and soon finds himself visiting Finca Vigia, fishing and drinking with the author and his wife Mary, and observing the Cuban Revolution up close and personal.

Giovanni Ribisi and Adrian Sparks in a scene from "Papa: Hemingway in Cuba"

Giovanni Ribisi and Adrian Sparks in a scene from “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”

The film is being touted as the first Hollywood production to film in Cuba in 45 years, including at Hemingway’s estate and other actual locations. While that’s an admirable diplomatic milestone, it unfortunately doesn’t contribute any verisimilitude whatsoever. Ribisi’s unconvincing performance, line after line of hackneyed dialogue, and consistently choppy editing combine to eliminate any chance you’ll be sucked into the story or the situation.

Just in case you were, however, there are subplots involving gun running, Santo Trafficante (James Remar) and J. Edgar Hoover, that, even if they are true, don’t make dramatic sense here. And it’s hard to fully trust a movie about Hemingway that trots out the old “six-word short story” anecdote, which is most likely apocryphal.

Actor Adrian Sparks has previously played Hemingway in a one-man stage show, and physically he’s a passable Papa, but frankly I’ll take Corey Stoll’s portrayal in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” any day of the week. Joely Richardson plays Mary Hemingway and Minka Kelly is Ribisi’s girlfriend back in Miami, neither of them given much opportunity to create a fully-fleshed character.

“Papa” is directed by Bob Yari, who’s best-known for being the guy who tried to sue the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he was denied a share of the Best Picture Oscar even though he was credited on-screen as a producer of “Crash,” possibly the worst film to win that honor in the last fifty years. I have a feeling he won’t need to worry about that sort of controversy this time out.

(109 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, April 29, at the Regal Fox Tower and other locations) GRADE: C-

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