Despite its obvious sincerity of purpose, and the cachet of its having been filmed on locations where the real-life drama actually unfolded, “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is disappointingly plodding and ham-fistedly obvious in its attempts to offer an up-close and personal portrait of a mood-swinging, self-loathing 59-year-old Ernest Hemingway. The movie — reportedly the first US production filmed in Havana in more than five decades — is based on an autobiographical screenplay by the late Denne Bart Petitclerc, who was befriended by the legendary author in 1959, and witnessed Hemingway at his most charismatic and least excusable. But “Papa” never transcends the tropes of a formulaic biopic that views its famous subject through the eyes of a worshipful young devotee.
Ticketbuyers may be lured by the somewhat misleading TV spots that make this rare directorial effort by veteran producer Bob Yari (“Crash”) look like an action-adventure set against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution. But the most receptive audience for “Papa” likely will be Hemingway aficionados who already know enough about the man, his works and his loves that when Mary Hemingway (Joely Richardson), the author’s wife, does a spirited imitation of Marlene Dietrich — well, they’ll know, even though the film never mentions it, that it is Marlene Dietrich she is mimicking.
Giovanni Ribisi plays Ed Myers, Petitclerc’s autobiographical alter ego, a Miami newspaper reporter who’s been looking for a father figure since his parents abandoned him during the Great Depression. When he writes an adulatory letter to Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) to thank the author for inspiring him during his hard-scrabble salad days, he’s amazed when his hero responds with an invitation to visit him in Cuba.
One trip leads to another, and a friendship gradually forms. Initially, Myers feels privileged to hang out with Ernest and Mary Hemingway at their Finca La Vigia home 10 miles east of Havana. He nods in syncopathic approval each time his hero drops a life lesson into their conversations (“The only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take”). And he feels he’s been accepted into an inner circle when he’s encouraged to address Hemingway as “Papa,” a nickname used only by the author’s intimates.
Unfortunately, the longer he’s around Papa, the more frequently Myers sees Hemingway’s dark side: the drunken rages, the angry quarrels with Mary, the suicidal self-loathing fueled by impotence and writer’s block (which Papa views as synonymous). A bad situation only gets worse as Myers starts to cover clashes between government forces and Castro-led rebels, then discovers J. Edgar Hoover has reasons to hate Hemingway other than Papa’s support of the revolution.
Adrian Sparks (who previously played Hemingway on stage in John deGroot’s one-man play “Papa”) is physically and emotionally credible as the author, especially during his swaggeringly robust moments. But Yari undercuts his performance by repeatedly underscoring the obvious with extended views of Hemingway taunted by the blank pages in his typewriter, and portentously fingering a loaded pistol.
Ribisi looks a tad long in the tooth to be fully believable as a character frequently referred to as “Kid,” but he hits the right notes while playing an acolyte who learns unpleasant truths about his mentor. Richardson neatly balances love and support with fear and anger in her effective portrayal of Mary Hemingway, while James Remar effortlessly steals his single scene as a Havana-based Mafioso who improbably enjoys Hemingway’s literary oeuvre. But Minka Kelly is hard-pressed to make much of her thinly written role as Meyers’ compassionate, if not infinitely patient, sweetheart.
Production values and on-location filming enhance the period flavor of “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba.” (The scenes inside the Hemingways’ home were filmed at the real Finca La Vigia, which has been restored as a museum.) Trouble is, that only makes the movie’s frequent hokeyness all the more distracting.