In his first scene of this strained biographical drama, Ernest Hemingway says, "I got your letter. It's a good letter." Then: "Do you like to fish?" And then, when Giovanni Ribisi's Hem-dazzled reporter shies away from the chance to pilot Papa's boat: "Kid, the only value we have as human beings are the risks we're willing to take." It's like Hemingway himself is competing in one of those Bad Hemingway contests, trying to out-terse, out-truth and out-man all comers. That is, until he's unmanned toward the end. In a caustic -- but unconvincing -- dustup with wife Mary (Joely Richardson), Adrian Sparks' Hemingway actually has to dash about with a revolver and yawp, "There's nothing for me in this life anymore! I can't write! I can't fuck!" The script is based on screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc's actual experience befriending the author, but words that might have lived in real life here die on the screen.
The familiar story of a fan dismayed to see the sad truth of an icon gets filled out with some pre-revolution skullduggery: The FBI and the Mafia pressure Ribisi's reporter to betray Hemingway, whom they suspect of weapons smuggling. Meanwhile Castro's insurgents lead assaults in the background, inspiring Hemingway to proclaim, "Goddam war!" But all that's background to the hero worship/idol smashing, with the Cubans barely present, and the reporter's lover (Minka Kelly) showing up at the finale to declare she's not an "accessory" despite not having clocked 10 minutes of screentime. The sunsets are gorgeous -- the film was shot in Cuba -- and Ribisi is suitably conflicted, and Sparks' Great Man is at first touchingly deflated.