Bob Yari’s Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is based on the accounts of Denne Bart Petticleric (who also supplied the screenplay), a journalist who wrote a fan letter to venerated author Ernest Hemingway and was surprised to receive a response and an invitation to visit his idol. Stunned at this stroke of luck, Ed Myers (Petticleric’s nom de plume) heads to Cuba, where he strikes up a friendship with Hemingway (Adrian Sparks).
This kinship with his idol is at first a wondrous salve to Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) who was abandoned by his parents in the throes of the Great Depression and has only ever wanted a family. But, over time, as their connection grows more intimate Myers begins to see not just the charming man of adventure who taught him how to deep sea fish, but also the darkness of the man. He becomes witness to Hemingway’s self-loathing, his drunken rages, his stormy fights with his wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), and his threats of suicide during bouts of writer’s block and impotence.
The film was shot on location in Cuba and features some truly beautiful scenery, including that shot in the actual Hemingway home, which is today a museum. These features give the film a smack of authenticity. And indeed, the script feels like an earnest accounting from a man who got to meet and love his hero, even the less heroic parts of him. But, perhaps it’s too personal. Whatever emotions Myers has for Hemingway don’t replicate in the viewer.
The fabled author is skillfully portrayed by Adrian Sparks, but however find all these recollections must have been for those who were there, Hemingway as he is presented here just doesn’t earn our sympathy. For all his adventures and his status as one of the most beloved men in Cuba, he seems a child, forever needing things his way and raging and storming when they are not. Our sympathies extend, rather, to Mary Hemingway, who seems to still feel powerful love for her husband, even if it is sometimes in spite of herself. And for Myers, who finds himself more and more embroiled in Hemingway’s darkness, experiencing for the first time in his life the obligations of family.
The film is at its best when this trio spend time together chatting exuberantly and musing over any old thing. It’s far weaker, however, when Myers begins reporting on political matters and he and Hemingway physically chase down an up close view of Castro’s rebellion. This is even more true when J. Edgar and Mr. Hemingway develop a beef and said beef has repercussions.
Great fans of the author shouldn’t miss this film, as Sparks’ performance is a worthy one. Those who are merely casual fans may grasp for a connection though, as this portrait really doesn’t do much to endear Hemingway, his own prose is much better left to do that.