For those with an interest in Ernest Hemingway, “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” is a remarkable treat. It contains information about the writer heretofore unknown, and though it’s a dramatic feature and not a documentary, it claims to tell the truth, without embellishment. Even better, it was written by someone who saw the events depicted firsthand.
The biggest kick of all is the performance of Adrian Sparks, who is as close to the actual Hemingway as you can ever hope to find. He looks just like him, but just as importantly, he sounds just like him. The voice of the real-life Hemingway was not the voice that comes off the pages of his novels. It was higher pitched than you might expect and very middle American. He didn’t sound like a stoic, tough-guy hero, but more approachable and normal – a voice you might hear coming out of a bank manager working in a small town in Illinois, circa 1940.
Directed by Bob Yari, “Papa Hemingway” took 10 years to make, during which time the screenwriter, Denne Bart Petitclerc, died. Petticlerc’s name is changed to Ed Myers in this version, but Ed’s story is Petitclerc’s story. He was an abandoned child who grew up, bummed around and found his footing as a newspaper reporter. And he idolized Hemingway.
In the late 1950s, while working in Miami, Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) writes to his hero in Cuba, and a few weeks later, he gets a phone call. It’s Hemingway, and he has three things to say: 1) He praises Myers’ style of “under-writing”; 2) He announces that he read Myers’ letter 10 times; and 3) He wants to know if Myers likes to fish. Within days, Myers finds himself out on a boat getting taught how to fish by the man himself.
Hemingway and his wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), call Myers “kid,” and he is invited to regard this older couple as family. Hemingway becomes a mentor and a father figure. We see his unexpected shyness and sensitivity, but also his mean streak. As Woody Allen once observed in a standup bit, Hemingway, sooner or later, punched almost every one of his friends in the face. It was just a matter of time.
The Cuban revolution, which was brewing in these years, coincided with a difficult period in Hemingway’s life. He was an alcoholic and, according to modern-day psychologists, almost certainly had bipolar disorder. The latter is reinforced by Petitclerc’s recollections, which depict Hemingway as swinging wildly from high spirits to anger to suicidal depression. Sparks’ performance somehow takes all these divergent traits and blends them into a single, convincing portrait. His Hemingway is warm, sensitive, charismatic, brave, cruel and nasty, by turns a boring old drunk and the most fascinating man in the world.
As Mary, Joely Richardson has less of a role, but she is also a complex figure, sometimes the long-suffering wife and at other times a partner in dysfunction. The occasional toxicity of the Hemingway marriage is presented with all the clarity of something as remembered through the appalled eyes of youth. There are few things more baffling, dispiriting or surprising when young than witnessing the self-defeating stupidity of one’s elders.
Ribisi is an ideal audience surrogate, full of feeling, though in a contained, Hemingwayesque kind of way. “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” is a relationship story, but it’s even more the biography of a great man in decline, and about the pressures he faced in his last years – physical and mental illness, harassment by the FBI and a revolution right outside his doorstep.
Speaking of his doorstep, the house and the grounds that you see in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” are not a recreation. All the scenes in Hemingway’s house were filmed in his actual house, which is now the Museo Hemingway in Havana.
Papa Hemingway in Cuba
Rated: R for language, sexuality, some violence, nudity. Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson. Director: Bob Yari. Running time: 109 minutes. Theater: Flicks.