Ernest Hemingway was a fascinating true life character. The life he led makes for a better story than most of what Hollywood’s been able to come up with lately, which is probably why he’s been portrayed over 40 times in film and TV. Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, directed by Bob Yari, is the latest portrayal, and tells a tale from the point of view of one of the author’s closest friends.
Papa is the true story of Denne Bart Petitclerc (called Ed Myers in the film), a Miami newspaper writer who was invited to spend time with his idol in Cuba after writing him a heartfelt letter. The two develop a tight relationship, and Hemingway becomes the father figure that Ed never had growing up (it’s fitting that Ernest’s actual nickname was “Papa”). All of this happens in the midst of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, and Myers gets swept up in the hurricane that was Papa’s life.
Ironically, the writing is what brings this picture down, coupled with Yari’s poor direction (it was only his second turn in the chair, and his first since 1989). The central plot is never clear, and the story moves much too fast. One minute it’s centered on Hemingway’s involvement in the Revolution, then it jumps to his depression and how it affected his marriage, and then it jumps yet again to Eddie’s own relationship with someone back in Miami. What’s actually driving the story? Where are we as viewers supposed to invest our emotions? Yari doesn’t spend enough time on anyone (including Papa himself) to make us care about what’s happening to them. Why should the audience feel anything towards Eddie’s love interest when her character isn’t developed at all, and she disappears for huge chunks of the movie?
Castro’s Revolution is the most engaging and intriguing part of the story by far, but sadly even that’s done a disservice. This is set up to be the crux of the film: Hemingway’s home is at war and the FBI is after him for various shady reasons. It’s intense, but it gets lost in the mess of assorted plot lines. Had Yari committed to making the Revolution the central focus of his work, it would have been wholly better. Instead, we get the tease of an engrossing storyline only to have it ripped away without a sense of closure.
The dialogue doesn’t do much to help the movie. It’s clunky, clichéd, and extremely expository to the point that it doesn’t sound natural. The characters just sound like they’re reading lines, and it’s actually quite comical at times. That’s not a slight against the actors either; everyone in this picture genuinely looks to be trying their best with the material they were given. Considering this script was written by the actual Denne Petitclerc before his death, it’s hard to see what Hemingway saw in him all those years ago.
Ultimately, there isn’t much else worth saying about Papa. It’s an interesting excerpt from the life a brilliant and tragic figure, but all of that gets lost thanks to messy storytelling from an inexperienced director. Your time would be better spent reading Hemingway’s biography or watching an actual documentary.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba opens in theaters this Friday, April 29th.