REVIEW: ‘Papa: Hemingway in Cuba’ ambitious, but overwritten

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is an ambitious, lovingly crafted portrait of an influential friendship between a young writer and one of the 20th Century’s literary giants. The film is well cast, beautifully shot, and seems to make every effort towards conveying authenticity of place, time, and emotion.

Unfortunately, the script is on many occasions throughout the film heavy-handed and overwritten, a tremendous irony considering its subject. The performers here do what they can with what they’re given, but scenes meant to deliver the film’s impact are diminished as they veer off time and again into ham-fisted melodrama.

What’s it about?

In the late 1950s, Miami Globe writer Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) writes a letter to his hero, Ernest Hemingway, expressing all the ways Hemingway and his works helped him find his way in life. Hemingway actually receives the letter, thanks to the efforts of Ed’s Globe co-worker, Deb (Minka Kelly, TV’s “Friday Night Lights“), and remarkably, responds by calling Myers at his newsroom desk.

“Great letter, kid,” says Hemingway to an awestruck Myers. “Do you like to fish?”

So begins an astonishing friendship, as Myers gains a father figure and mentor, while Hemingway gains a kindred spirit. But as he becomes a part of Hemingway’s life in those twilight years, he comes to see his hero in a whole different light, and bears witness as the literary giant struggles with age, regret, his tumultuous relationship with his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), and revolution changing the Cuba he’s come to love.

papa: hemingway in cuba one-sheet poster

A true story

The script for Papa: Hemingway in Cuba comes from the late Denne Bart Petitclerc, who wrote it based on his real-life experiences and his friendship with Hemingway. Petitclerc’s affection for his friend is evident in every frame of the film, but the film doesn’t lionize Hemingway. There is an effort to show the complexity of the man – his moods, his struggles with depression, his temper, and his propensity to overindulge in alcohol.

The production, touted as the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, makes a supreme effort to compliment the script with as much authenticity as possible. As a result, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba never fails to impress in terms of the look of the production. From the late 50s-era cars to the buildings and the many scenes shot inside Hemingway’s home, now a national museum in Cuba, it’s a feast for the eyes, especially for Hemingway fans.

Director Bob Yari, along with cinematographer Ernesto Melara, fill Papa: Hemingway in Cuba  with sweeping shots of glistening ocean waters, swaying palm trees, and bustling Havana streets to fully immerse audiences in the film’s world, a world few outside the island have seen in more than 50 years. Though Cuba may become a more accessible destination for Americans in the years to come, for now, the film provides a sumptuous glimpse at the island nation, in order for audiences to better understand just why someone like Hemingway would fall in love with the place as much as he did.

Casting cannot overcome script failings

Though Giovanni Ribisi carries top billing in Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, it’s Adrian Sparks who dominates the film as he brings to life Hemingway himself. Sparks, a veteran TV and stage actor who played Hemingway to great acclaim in a 2005 one-man stage play simply entitled “Papa,” simply is Hemingway – he never fails to convince as the aging writer.

Joely Richardson proves a capable match for Sparks on-screen as Mary, who was a writer and war correspondent in her own right before her marriage to Hemingway, and thus had her own stories and ego to match his. As depicted here, theirs was a love characterized by emotions both grandly displayed and willfully withheld, one that tended to be explosive when the drinking went too far on both sides. Richardson and Sparks deliver the difficult scenes effectively – it’s tough to take your eyes off the spectacle when the two throw down.

Surprisingly, for all the skill displayed in the film’s cast, their work is held back by a screenplay that at times can’t get out of its own way. Reportedly, the screen story in Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is “100% true”, thus moving the film more into the realm of docudrama than biopic. However, the wordiness of many exchanges between the characters simply goes beyond suspension of disbelief. If anything, it’s almost impossible to believe that Hemingway, with his personal literary style so synonymous with economy of words and language, would ever talk the way he does in this film.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba also suffers from pacing issues, lumbering from one difficult exchange between characters to the next the way Hemingway himself lumbers from room to room in the house. The last half of the film supposedly covers one long weekend, but with all that happens in that span, all unfolding at a glacial pace, it feels more like a month’s time.

Worth seeing?

If there’s affection in your heart for Hemingway and/or his works, or if you have some curiosity about seeing Cuba as it was in the 1950s (which, for the most part, it still is today), then Papa: Hemingway in Cuba will make for interesting viewing. It’s by no means a must-see in theaters, however – the breathtaking views of Havana’s streets and Cuba’s beautiful beaches, as well as the glimpses inside the Hemingway home, will all be just as effective on home video.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly, Shaun Toub, James Remar, and Adrian Sparks. Directed by Bob Yari.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated R for language, sexuality, some violence and nudity.


Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.