The film is based on an Ernest Hemingway novel published some 25 years after his death. Kimberly Gadette notes that sometimes there's a good reason why an author chooses to inter his own work. Let sleeping dogs lie ... please.
The question that occurs after suffering through this 111-minute dirge is not whether director John Irvin hates actors but rather, how much. It's almost as if we can imagine Irvin barking out orders to his stars during the scenes: "Once more, with less feeling. Come on, you can do worse, can't you? Milk it! Drag it out! Get shallow!"
We've seen previous work from co-stars Mena Suvari (American Beauty) and Jack Huston (HBO's Boardwalk Empire) – and they've never seemed like an embarrassment to their profession before. Between Huston's milquetoast husband David, cornering the market on dull, and Suvari's unstable wife Catherine, trying to convey the varying elements of a seductress, a brat and a she-devil – and failing at them all – this just may be the most painful film of 2010. And not just for Suvari and Huston.
Before we run off to another movie, trying to erase all memory of this one, let's recap: based on an early novel by Ernest Hemingway that he tinkered with for 15 years before burying it for good (more later), this Jazz Age tale is about David, an American writer who's decided to stay on in Europe after his stint as an aviator in WWI. Faster than you can say "F. Scott Fitzgerald," he meets and marries the extremely rich Catherine. She buys him a blue Bugatti so that they can they tour around the south of France and Spain on an extended honeymoon. But since he is indeed a scribe, he needs to find some quiet time to write ... which seems as insufferable to his spoiled, restless bride as if he were flinging elephant poo into the Mediterranean.
Speaking of elephant poo, as if this movie weren't bad enough, we get flashes of Matthew Modine and a horrible child actor galumphing through Kenya in pursuit of some heavy-footed mammal with long, lovely ivory tusks. It's David as the writer, see, escaping from the current story by writing himself into another one.
Couldn't we all have just stepped outside for a drink?
Back to the film and yes, we have to. To stir things up, other than the alcoholic concoctions that the wife is constantly imbibing [note to the screenwriter: having a drink does not constitute a plot point], Catherine takes a break from hurling invective in order to orchestrate a bit of high drama. Unlike others who bring home a stray dog, she drags in a stray Italian heiress (Caterina Murino's Marita) in the hopes of amusing both herself and hubby. Never have sex games induced such narcolepsy.
The scenery's nice. So are the costumes. But the production must have run out of funds ... Suvari's numerous wigs look to be ripped off the heads of dime-store dolls that were destined for the junkyard. Rather than a glimpse of real roots, or a flash of scalp, we see assorted plastic cloths that the hair, er, Dynel strands are glued onto. No wonder the poor woman drinks.
But we don't have to suffer for long. At least with the hair. By the middle of the second act, Catherine does away with the Dynel dolly-headed look, deciding instead that she and David must turn into albino-ized blondes, sharing the same androgynous hairdo and matching outfits.
Who knew that Edgar and Johnny Winter were around during the Jazz Age?
As for the original work, Hemingway wrote this semi-autobiographical novel in 1946 and though he never finished it, he fiddled with the story until his death in 1961. Published in 1986, The Garden of Eden is considered one of Hemingway's most controversial works, primarily due to the heavy-handed editing by publishing house Charles Scribner's Son. (Scribner's took the original tome, consisting of 200,000 words and 48 chapters, and subsequently cut it down to 70,000 words and 30 chapters.) Questions on the ethics of posthumous editing abound.
It certainly didn't help the film that first-time screenwriter James Scott Linville (a former editor of "The Paris Review") decided to have a go. Of course, the fact that the film itself had been languishing for two years before its official release date now seems an obvious harbinger of doom.
While even veteran actor Richard E. Grant can't overcome the clunky lines ("Remember, everything is right ... until it's wrong"), Murino as the Italian heiress is the film's sole survivor. Rather than just hanging around looking beautiful, Murino emerges unscathed, conveying a subtle, honest level of emotion that is far and away the only decent performance in the film.
Oh, and the elephant gives it his all.
Rating on a scale of 5 tolling bells: 0.5
Release date: US: 10 December 2010; UK: TBD
Directed by: John Irvin
Screenplay by: James Scott Linville
Based on the posthumously published novel by: Ernest Hemingway
Cast: Mena Suvari, Jack Huston, Caterina Murino, Carmen Maura, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Modine, Mathias Palsvig
Rating: US = R; UK = TBD
Running time: 111 minutes