A young, undistinguished writer-journalist travels to meet a famous novelist, and a tumultuous, psychodramatic romance ensues. It’s not the fault of Bob Yari, the director behind the new Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, that his long-awaited project bears such close resemblance to last year’s The End of the Tour, that dramedy of re-divorce about David Foster Wallace. After all, both films are based on true stories about outsized literary egos; both consider suicides who came to redefine masculinity in their times — to the detriment of their literary work.
But the account of Wallace presented in The End of the Tour is scrutable. You can find it on a shelf and make sense of it. Oppositely, the story presented in Papa is impossible to understand or interpret beyond a few simple facts. As far as I can tell, the film presents the story of a young writer — played mercifully by Giovanni Ribisi (reprising a pre-drunk version of Moburg from The Rum Diary) — who writes a letter to his mentor, a physiognomically exact Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks). Hemingway responds by inviting the writer to come from Miami to Cuba, where he famously held post as a literary celebrity after winning the Nobel Prize. They fish for marlin. They swim in the nude and drink rum. And they witness the unfolding violence of the Cuban Revolution from meters away.
But like The End of the Tour, Papa becomes a paradoxical hagiography of the writer-as-suicide. Much of the film is given over to Hemingway’s self-pitying rambles, domestic arguments with his wife, bouts of flirtation with a loaded revolver, and paranoiac mania. And here’s the thing: it’s all true, if we’re to trust the story of Denne Bart Petitclerc, the screenwriter who was Ribisi’s character in real life. Petitclerc, who died ten years ago, remained a lifelong acolyte of Hemingway even after the author’s death — he spent the last 35 years of his life in Ketchum, Idaho, where his mentor famously committed suicide.
Unfortunately, Petitclerc’s intimate feelings for Hemingway never come off the page — the script has the abstruseness of the overly personal. (Even if it does contain notable biographical bits: did Hemingway really run weapons for the Cuban revolutionaries?) The passing of time in Papa, for example, is perilously drunken, blurred by an accumulation of rum in the bloodstream. By the end of it, I had no idea how long I’d been in Cuba.
Still, I did realize that we were in Cuba. And this is Papa’s destiny: it will remembered as the “first Hollywood feature film shot in Cuba in 50 years” (a fact made all the stranger by its depiction of the revolution). More likely, though, it will be recalled as a botched attempt to shoot a film in Cuba in the wake of a half-century embargo. If Yari cared about the historical importance of his location, it doesn’t show. The images presented here have the charm of cultural tourism and stock photography; the Cubans in the film are shown as lifeless props. In short, it’s a fairly accurate if accidental metaphor for what the US plans for Cuba after the thaw.
Was it opportunism on Yari’s part? (He is being sued over the film by Sharon Stone.) Does it matter? Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, with its strangely descriptive title, its depthless portrayal of an overexposed cipher for bewildered manliness, its palm trees and rum and old cars, is just another example of how America abstracts its writers into personalities. “I love you, Papa,” several characters say to a crazed Hemingway as he waves his gun, promising self-harm. It’s easier than reading the books.