The new biopic about Ernest Hemingway, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, gets to claim one thing: it’s the first American film production to be shot in Cuba since 1959. It’s a fun fact. It’s also the only thing interesting about this otherwise lackluster attempt to explore a part of Hemingway’s later years.
The screenplay was written by the late Denne Bart Petitclerc over a decade ago from his experiences with Hemingway in Cuba, with the author replacing himself with surrogate Eddie Myers (Giovanni Ribisi). The film opens with Eddie junking the latest in a series of unsent fan letters to Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks). His girlfriend Debbie (Minka Kelly) eventually decides to send one of the crumpled letters to Hemingway, who replies with an invitation to go fishing in Cuba. Once there, Eddie finds a man who’s far more complex than he expected.
For a man who’s considered such an icon of American literature, Hemingway’s time in Cuba – towards the end of the author’s life – seems like a period that could provide a lot of material for at least a solid look at the man in decline. A smarter film might have explored Hemingway’s declining cognitive abilities, for example, or the problems that arise when one develops a particular persona. Instead, the film is happy to largely alternate between Hemingway drinking and making an ass of himself, and Eddie dealing with it. The fact that the film was shot in Cuba barely registers, since the film downplays the setting outside of Hemingway’s estate for the most part. Maybe it’s because Petitclerc has been dead for a decade, and first-time director Bob Yari has little experience of his own to liven up the film. But a subject matter with a lot of potential, and a killer location, deserves so much better than this.