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Review: Jagged ‘Papa’ an experience with Hemingway

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Stiff and somewhat meandering, “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” strands an interesting cast of real-life characters in awkward cliches and clumsy scenes.

Which is too bad, because there’s some serious talent involved. The perpetually under-appreciated Joely Richardson is absolutely riveting at times, but at others she just seems to be crashing into a conversation. A miscast Giovanni Ribisi — everyone keeps referring to him as “the kid”; Ribisi is 41 — is game, but his character never rings true.

Ribisi plays Ed Myers, a newspaper reporter in Miami. Orphaned during the Depression, he grew up idolizing Ernest Hemingway. He keeps writing a letter to Hemingway, trying to express his feelings, but never mails it. One day a co-worker named Debbie Hunt (the apparently ageless Minka Kelly) reads the letter and secretly sends it to Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), who lives a short flight away in Cuba.

Hemingway calls the shocked Myers and invites him to come visit. When Myers does, the first thing he encounters is Hemingway’s wife, Mary (Richardson) skinny dipping in their pool. From there Myers becomes an adopted son of sorts — again, Hemingway is just turning 59 and Richardson is only 51, so the whole age thing feels off.

Myers goes fishing with Papa, which is what people call Hemingway. He soaks in his wisdom and drinks endlessly with the man. He witnesses the shy Hemingway being hounded by celebrity, and realizes the antagonistic relationship between his wife, a onetime accomplished journalist, and the great novelist.

Meanwhile, back in Miami, Myers is in a relationship with Hunt, but he has commitment issues. Dude, that’s Minka Kelly!

Things ramble on, with countless abrasive arguments between Papa and Mary, threats of suicide, a weird side-turn of gun-running (Castro is about to take over Cuba), and the revelation that J. Edgar Hoover is out to get Papa because he knows about Hoover’s cross-dressing.

All of which might have made for a fine story, but director Bob Yari, whose only other directing credit is from 1989, simply can’t find a rhythm here. Drama suddenly comes out of nowhere, and then lingers too long and loud. Arch scenes come without set-up — particularly a birthday party quarrel — and then dissolve into easy emotional explanations.

Richardson deserves better. Hemingway certainly deserves better. And so does the audience.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘Papa Hemingway

in Cuba’


Rated R for language, sexuality, some violence and nudity

Running time: 109 minutes