Big Two-Hearted Lover
Twenty-five years posthumously and perhaps against the author’s wishes, The Garden of Eden appeared, when literary fashion and feminist attitudes had diminished Ernest Hemingway’s once-formidable reputation. Directed by John Irvin and adapted by James Scott Linville from the seemingly autobiographical roman à clef (like The Sun Also Rises), Hemingway’s Garden of Eden will restore no luster to the celebrity writer-adventurer.
Few of the hundred-eleven minutes are visually devoted to the novella “African Story,” whose prominence grows as thirtyish author and Papa stand-in David Bourne (Jack Huston) mind’s-eyes and pencils it. Standard Hemingway, this best of the movie might have been expanded to feature length, a brown-tinted tale of machismo, hunting, acceptance, memory and life lessons along the lines of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and, more so, White Hunter, Black Heart (whose Eastwood macho director-elephant hunter is a fictionalized John Huston, Jack’s grandfather).
This is the sort of thing that, on the cusp of world fame, Bourne does to be true to himself and to his writerly craft. Upset and made rebellious by the killing years apart of two elephant friends, young Davey (Mathias Palsvig) is reprimanded by his hunter father (Matthew Modine). “That’s when I got to know him, [and] it always made me happy to remember my father.”
The author’s typical rite of passage from boy to man, however, is swamped by the ménage à trios that prompted Richard E. Grant (who plays fusty lusting booby prize Colonel Boyle) to leer, “the essence of the story is sex . . . by the bed-full!” Erotica only occasionally forms the basis for good cinema, and does not here. The smoldering sexuality fizzles in the bedding between Bourne and new wife Catherine (Mena Suvari), an heiress who buys and seduces him in a whirlwind courtship.
His back bad, Hemingway did write standing up. The first (and best) of his four wives, Hadley, wore her hair short and did lose never-recovered manuscripts on a French train; the wife for whom he left her, Pauline, was of the Sloan’s Liniment, Richard Hudnut and Warner Pharmaceuticals fortune; so there will be an understandable tendency to read them in, along with Zelda Fitzgerald’s jealousy of the writing of husband (and a Hemingway friend whom he betrayed) Scott. Sulking that David’s writing requires solitude and that he collects his review clippings, Cathy drinks too much, bobs her dyed blonde hair shorter and shorter and gets David to color his blonde-white, reminds him that she is the one who wears the financial pants, and initiates bedroom games and -- “Don’t call me a girl!” -- rôle reversals with which straight David goes along but is uneasy.
In the Bugatti roadster she got him shortly after they met in Paris, the couple motor the Spanish and French Mediterranean coasts, to settle in for winter at Madame Aurol’s (Carmen Maura, wasted in her first English-speaking part) B&B. Egging her husband on to a book about their life and love, Riviera, she then brings back a Torino heiress whom they had both admired in an outdoor café extricating herself from an older lesbian companion. As Italian Marita, Caterina Murino is the sole true sensuality, first sucked in as the wife’s lover and pawn in the projected experimental threesome but soon offering herself to, and in love with, the pliant but puritanical David.
In spite of the title and would-be titillating trappings, Hemingway’s Garden of Eden is not a fall from innocent grace. More as in romantic comedy, all ends well as available couples are suitable mated, plus a burnt story apparently is remembered and a father embraced and his ghost exorcised. But the blood, flies, racism and death in Africa are more worthwhile than the games and fame of this 1920s Europe.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated "R" for strong sexual content, nudity and some language.)