Judge Daryl Loomis thinks this is one story that should have died with its author.
Surrender your inhibitions.
"They sat there in their striped fisherman's shirts and the shorts they had bought in the store that sold marine supplies, and they were very tan and their hair was streaked and faded by the sun and the sea. Most people thought they were brother and sister until they said they were married. Some did not believe they were married and that pleased the girl very much."—from Earnest Hemingway's Garden of Eden
Facts of the Case
The girl is Catherine (Mena Suvari, The Rage: Carrie 2), a young heiress who has fallen in love with David Bourne (Jack Huston, Eclipse), a successful expat writer living in France. A quick marriage and they're off on a whirlwind honeymoon across the Riviera. David's writing bores Catherine, though, so she runs off and finds a young Italian beauty named Marita (Caterina Murino, Casino Royale) to bring home and occupy her time. Over the next few weeks, the three live together in a state of sexual ambiguity, but Catherine cannot stave off jealousy forever.
Director John Irvin (Raw Deal) elected to stick very closely to Hemingway's text for his adaptation of Garden of Eden and, while that can certainly be welcome, the film is also at the mercy of the quality of the text. In this case, it's devastating to Irvin's work. The problems with the film are great, but even if it all was perfect, it could still never get over the shallow and preposterous mess that Papa Hemingway wrote but never published during his life. Would that it stayed out of print; I wouldn't have read that piece of trash and I wouldn't have watched this one.
At its heart, Hemingway's Garden of Eden, both the book and the film, tells a story of a woman who is jealous of her man's writing. This concept isn't novel; it was tackled much more artfully in a chess scenario by Nabokov in The Defense as well as many other places, but Hemingway demonstrates this concept as poorly as possible. It's not good enough for Catherine that David dotes on her every second he doesn't write; he needs to dote on her every second. Her problem is perplexing: she is attracted to him because he's a successful writer, but hates him for writing. Naturally, her solution is to find an unsuspecting girl for some hot make-outs so she can make David jealous. When that doesn't work, she starts to bully David into entering the fray, and he's unable to resist.
The sexual games didn't start here, though. In an exceedingly rare turn, Hemingway actually wrote gender politics into his story, though he has about as much understanding of female characters as you'd expect. As a very wealthy woman, Catherine has power and wields everywhere she can, mostly in the bedroom. There, she directs David that he's the girl and she's the boy, she makes them dress the same and wear the same haircut, and controls his life in whatever way she can. She can't, however, control his writing, and that vexes her most of all. The gender reversal works most of the time, but when it comes to this fact, her general femaleness becomes her undoing. Now, all she can do is freak out, destroy all his stuff, and then leave. Just like women always do, right Ernie? Typical. He was sometimes a great writer, but in matters like this, he was always a complete fool.
Now that I'm through badmouthing one of America's literary treasures, it's time to badmouth this movie, which is plain terrible. The story is bad enough, but the performances…oh god, the performances. Mena Suvari, who carries the bulk of the dialog, is wooden like I rarely see. Hemingway's short bursts of dialog don't lend themselves particularly well to film, but every line she reads sounds canned like some kind of ventriloquist's dummy. To her credit, few actresses look more natural as a 1920s independent woman, but it's amazing how easily she crushes all that easy credibility in her tiny fist with a single line of dialog. I blame her, but it isn't as though her cohorts do anything worth watching, either. Jack Huston wanders around, ridiculously coiffed in a platinum wig, looking happy to be John Huston's grandson; I can scarcely imagine another reason he gets work. They even manage to waste Richard Harris (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) in a role that has little place in the film. As a group, though, the performances are only as shallow as the characters Hemingway wrote, so everybody's to blame for this mistake.
The DVD from Lionsgate looks and sounds quite good, in spite of the film, so that's something. With an entirely different cast and story, the cinematography might help redeem something, and it is no doubt beautiful. The palette of whites and muted browns are bright and clear in the anamorphic transfer and no problems whatsoever in the image. The film does not feature overly dynamic sound design, but both the surround and stereo transfers sound very good, with no noise or problems of any kind to speak of, unless you count the words coming out of the actors' mouths, of course. The only extra is a trailer and for that, at least, I can be thankful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I do have to give Ashley Rowe credit for his cinematography. The landscape is naturally stunning and Rowe makes it truly sparkle. It's just very sad that his work went to this picture.
With titles such as Hamburger Hill and Next of Kin to his credit, nobody would accuse John Irvin of directing with a soft touch. Luckily, Papa Bear wrote enough ham-handed material in this book for two terrible movies, so Irvin didn't have to stretch too far. Hemingway believed that his book wasn't worth publication, and he was right. It took two years from the end of production for this film to see the light of day. Couldn't the producers have come to the same conclusion as the author?
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