“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is the first American feature shot entirely on location in Havana since 1959. The movie makes a good argument for reinstating the American travel ban to the island, at least for Hollywood productions. Shot in 2014 with the assistance of the Cuban Film Institute, on a budget low enough to skate by the U.S. trade embargo policy, this dramatization of the real-life friendship between a former Miami Herald reporter and the legendary author during the late 1950s is as engaging and authentic as a junior high school production of “Death of a Salesman.”
Based on an autobiographical screenplay by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006 while trying to develop the movie, the film stars Giovanni Ribisi as Ed Myers, a journalist who was inspired to become a writer after reading Hemingway’s novels in an orphanage during the Depression.
Ed travels to Cuba, a magical land where happy people plays maracas and baseball and pick coconuts from palm trees. He goes fishing with Hemingway, who is prone to spouting bits of wisdom at the slightest provocation (“The only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take,” he tells Ed as the city slicker nervously pilots the boat).
Played by Adrian Sparks in a style better suited for dinner theater or a Key West tourist attraction, Hemingway comes across as a complete cypher. Everyone in the film keeps talking about his genius, but other than a scene in which he writes a short story on the back of a napkin, the movie doesn’t try to humanize or explore his talent. Instead, director Bob Yari assumes everyone in the audience learned about Hemingway in high school. We’re expected to understand why he runs toward a gunfight that breaks out at the Cuban Presidential Palace in which 40 revolutionaries were killed, or why he’s prone to sticking a loaded gun inside his mouth as a way of trying to get over his writer’s block.
“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is best enjoyed as a travelogue that allows the viewer a good look inside Finca Vigia (a popular tourist attraction in real life) and lots of shots of cool vintage cars and beautiful beaches. But there isn’t a single honest moment in this colossally misguided movie, which manages to flub even the simplest details. When Ed is back in the Miami Globe newsroom and preparing to write about the revolution brewing in Cuba, he barks “Get me some background on this Castro fellow!” Like everything else in this stiff, unconvincing dud, that’s just not the way the world works.