Film Review: Hemingway's Garden of Eden

Papa, they've done you wrong again, in this dreadful, miscast Hemingway adaptation.

Ernest Hemingway, with his terse, dialogue-driven style, macho concerns and exotic climes, would seem to be a natural fit for film, so it is therefore a real conundrum that so many screen adaptations of his work have been abysmal. Rare exceptions to the rule have been Frank Borzage's 1932 A Farewell to Arms (largely for Gary Cooper's wrenching, archetypal Hemingway guy performance), Robert Siodmack's The Killers and Zoltan Korda's too-little-known The Macomber Affair.

Unfortunately, Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, based on a book which was posthumously published in 1986, is no such exception, although it tries mightily to convey the sex and writerly compulsion which made the novel such a compelling read. It's the tale of married couple David (Jack Huston) and Catherine Bourne (Mena Suvari), who, at Catherine's neurotically willful instigation, play at games of gender identity and sexual role reversal which prove disastrous. Their feverish relationship is set against a luscious Cote d'Azur background in the iconically halcyon 1920s.

From the very beginning, when Suvari makes her first appearance in an atrociously bad wig, director John Irvin gets things direly wrong. The devastatingly suggestive dryness of Hemingway's prose is here replaced with a thudding literalness wholly lacking in essential mystery and allure. All the surface elements have been carefully assembled—the snazzy antique cars, endless cocktails to Jazz Age melodies, and androgynous period fashions—but Irvin's hamhanded technique robs the proceedings of any heady fun or viewer involvement. There are lots of gauzy soft-porn sequences featuring the always game-to-get-naked Suvari, and David's writing process is rife with clichés. Irvin periodically injects scenes from the autobiographical opus David struggles to complete, about a fraught father-son relationship during an African elephant safari, which are pretty disastrous. Matthew Modine is cartoonish, trying to be a stoic great white hunter, while the torturously named Matias Koie Levi Palsig is rambunctiously way too contemporary, behaving like he's Home Alone on the Dark Continent.

The miscasting is epic: Lightweight Huston has the effete handsomeness of a male model, wholly lacking in the necessary depth to make David's near-destruction at Catherine's hands truly shocking. Suvari works hard—way too hard—affecting a god-awful "period" accent and line delivery, throwing her lissome body around, smoking and drinking like a fiend, but never coming across as anything more than a tiresome spoiled brat in a permanent snit. It's simply beyond her to convey anything like the complex emotional and erotic hold Catherine has over David. A seminal moment in the novel is when she convinces David to style and color his hair identically to her own, which is probably a conceit that works better on the page than when actually visualized; those matching platinum bobs are merely risible on the screen.

Carmen Maura appears as a rather unconvincing French innkeeper, but I still couldn't help thinking that the sensual, intelligent power and elemental drive she evinced in her younger, Almodóvarian days were precisely the qualities needed for Catherine, which Suvari so sorely lacks. Caterina Murino plays Marita, an Italian lesbian who becomes involved with the Bournes, and is little more than a decorative sop to straight male fantasies.