The gradual unravelling of Ernest Hemingway set against the Cuban revolution deserves a better film treatment than “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” (opening in theaters April 29). This clunky and deeply troubled docudrama never overcomes its narrative and technical shortcomings.
In short: A young journalist (Giovanni Ribisi) finds a father figure in legendary author Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks). Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly, Shaun Toub and James Remar also star. (Watch the trailer)
How well a filmmaker manages voiceover absolutely reflects the quality of storytelling to come. Lyrical, elegant voiceover is a good sign … but graceless, blatant exposition lazily thrown at the audience is a terrible sign worth heeding. The fact that this movie opens with a voiceover monologue that borders on insulting is bad for two disconcerting reasons: the filmmakers either 1) feel the need to spoon feed the movie’s sentiments to the audience or 2) may not be capable of telling a story with any sort of art.
Whether the cause is an apparent lack of respect for the audience or a sheer lack of ability to tell a story, the end result is a movie that lacks shape and is fundamentally confusing. If this is a story about a young man’s need for a father figure, then “Papa” fails because it doesn’t develop that paternal relationship to any great depth. Hemingway simply vomits sagely advice to his young friend. Then there’s the entirely extraneous b-plot involving the Cuban uprising and an apparent conspiracy against Hemingway. It’s transparently a lame attempt to drum up some dramatic tension (where otherwise none exists), but this weird side plot just anticlimactically peters out as fast as it randomly popped up in the first place.
Arguably the one thing “Papa” does get right is chronicling Hemingway’s increasing paranoia and suicidal tendencies — but even this is hollow in the context to this movie. The root causes of Hemingway’s inner demons are skirted in a single forgettable scene, summed up with a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Even Hemingway’s ultimate fate is just a meager postscript (yet another shoddily written voiceover). Without any sort of dramatic tension or obvious story structure, “Papa” is basically just the story of the time a young guy met an old man.
And this film isn’t merely bad on a content level – it’s a technically poorly assembled movie. Many worse movies at least looked like they were professional productions. At times, “Papa” has the production value rivaling that of a SyFy or Hallmark Channel movie. It’s edited with a meat cleaver. The few ‘action’ scenes are sillier than they are threatening. And the dubbing issues are distractingly egregious – it’s obvious actors had to re-record their lines over huge chunks of the movie. To make matters worse: it’s obvious they had to loop their dialogue. Technical problems are usually not worth calling out in a review — but most movies don’t have so many glaring technical flaws that are so rampant, obvious and distracting.
Final verdict: “Papa” deserves some credit for being the first Hollywood film shot on location in Cuba since the 1959 Cuban revolution. And that’s about the only compliment this overacted, poorly written and clumsily produced rudderless melodrama deserves.
“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” opens in select cities nationwide April 29. This true-life drama is rated R for language, sexuality, some violence and nudity