Papa Hemingway in Cuba


            Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) had a tough childhood.  As a little boy, he remembers his father taking him to see a Christmas tree downtown, and saying to him, “Wait here.  I'll be right back.”  His father never returned.  And so Ed winds up being raised in a Catholic orphanage, an oppressive atmosphere which he exited as quickly as he could.  Out the window.

            Being a street tough didn't kill him, but it did teach him some life savvy, and also that he really wanted to be a writer.  Having neglected much of his formal education, he tries playing catch-up by getting a job at a newspaper, but they quickly discover his lack of grammatical skills.  And so Ed, now a young adult, catches up by typing Ernest Hemingway's short stories, word for word.  There, he not only learns proper language, he learns how to express himself with emotional clarity.  It wouldn't work for everyone, of course, but it did for him.

            His newspaper career as a sportswriter took a turn when he accepted an assignment as a war correspondent in Korea (like his literary hero Ernest Hemingway had also been a war correspondent in Spain during Franco's revolution).  Now, in the late 1950's, Ed Myers is a prominent writer for The Miami Herald, where a pretty woman in the newsroom, Debbie (Minka Kelly), has her eye on him, but he tells himself he doesn't know how to love, anyway.  And the marriages he's observed seem more like war zones than any emotional comfort to anyone.

            Ed realizes that Ernest Hemingway is currently residing in Havana, just 90 miles away, and he longs to meet his idol and literary hero.  He even writes a letter introducing himself to the prize-winning author, but he's too afraid to actually mail it.  So Debbie secretly does it for him.  And lo and behold, the next thing he knows, Ernest Hemingway is actually calling him on the telephone, inviting him to Havana for a visit.

            “Papa” Hemingway cuts a larger-than-life figure atop his fishing boat, patiently teaching Ed (whom he calls “kid”) how to reel in a big marlin.  Then he invites Ed to the house to meet his wife, the lovely (and much younger) Mary (Noely Richardson).  She's perfectly charming.  And perfectly comfortable swimming naked in their private swimming pool, as is Papa.  Soon Ed loses his inhibitions, as well, and finds himself a frequent house guest.  Papa is like the father he never had;  Papa seems to enjoy having an admiring protege around.  He claims he's shy, but he actually has few close friends.  Whenever he tries to go out in public, he gets swamped with autograph seekers, even at his beloved favorite bar, The Floridita.  So he mostly just drinks at home.  And drinks.  And drinks.

            Yes, Papa Hemingway seems to have become his own caricature.  He's emotionally all over the map:  sometimes expansive and funny, other times boorish and crude.  And sometimes he treats Mary with the greatest courtesy and respect, and other times he's incredibly cruel to her.  It's as if, after all the great literary awards, he doesn't have any real writing left in him, so that just leaves him to create some kind of home-remedy melodrama fueled by alcohol consumption.  Not really a pretty picture.  But somewhere in there, Ed manages to dig out a few gems of good advice.  Like the importance of taking risks.  And figuring out what you want, and going for it.

            Oh, and in the meantime, there's this revolution going on in Cuba, which Ed writes about when he returns to Miami, with his first-hand eyewitness accounts of battles around the Presidential palace.  Throw in a few freebies about the FBI and gun-running for the rebels, and you have all the makings of an outsize biopic, with nobody quite as charming as they think they are. 


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Which Ernest Hemingway book is your favorite?

2)                  Is Hemingway's renown clouded by his ignominious ending?

3)                  Have you ever known anyone who's become a caricature of their former selves?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association