In the unconscionably long and so bad it’s utterly hilarious overblown HBO epic Hemingway and Gellhorn, the audience gets treated to watching two undoubtedly great actors from their generation give their takes on two of the American literary world’s greatest figures without ever once letting them create characters. Instead, director Philip Kaufman (Henry and June, The Right Stuff) and writers Barbara Turner (Pollock) and Jerry Stahl (Alf, Bad Boys 2) can’t ever seem to be on the same page at the same time creating a tonally inconsistent trainwreck that simply ends up remaking Kaufman’s Henry and June with two totally different characters with less personality while regurgitating hamfisted historical facts instead of letting these famous characters actually seem like real human beings that once lived.
The telefilm comes bookended by an interview with a now older Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) as she relays her time as a war correspondent and her relationship to famed writer Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen), who has decided to make a movie about the plight of the Spanish people during World War II with the help of Jon Dos Pasos (David Strathairn) and Danish documenarian Joris Ivens (Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, seriously). While in Spain, they form a relentless love affair born out of danger, mutual respect, admiration and a great deal of horniness that would last for years.
It would be somewhat disingenuous to call Kaufman (a noted eroticist in his own right) out for sexualizing Hemingway and Gellhorn, but the film becomes akin to a ridiculous Red Shoe Diaries episode. If the almost comedic tone of the film didn’t send things south in a hurry from the opening frames, the first lovemaking scene between the two leads would send people running for the exits in their own home. The passionately rip each other’s clothes off in the middle of burning building with bombs falling all around it. When the ceiling starts to cave in, they don’t leave. They just keep screwing while rubbing plaster all over their bodies. It’s the ultimate unwitting metaphor for how truly awful and experience this is, and the fact that the film manages to cram no less than six awkward sex scenes in does it no favours in the pacing department.
Then again, maybe the film should have stuck with the sexual aspect of their relationship instead, because the rest of the film feels just as tonally awkward. Stahl and Turner cram decades worth of historically cheesy expository dialogue into every sequence. Newsreel narrators from the 1940s describing movie premieres and the march to war don’t sound as histrionic and soulless as the people in this film. With lines like “You spend so much time arguing with F. Scott Fitzgerald about who has a bigger penis, BUT I KNOW THE TRUTH!” and “God damnit, there goes the bravest woman I ever met” and “Ernest says that if you kill enough animals, you won’t have to kill yourself” (said while Martha stares longingly at Hemingway’s gun cabinet literally minutes into the film), subtlety can just be thrown out the window.
The brickbat approach of one of the worst prestige scripts ever to get greenlit ties the actor’s hands behind their backs. There’s no room to add any subtle touches or flesh out the characters because everything they say and do has to function as an expository dump of information the writers think the audience is too stupid to know already. Owen seems sad and just about ready to give up. He starts off playing Hemingway with an intensely awkward accents, but he abandons it pretty early on to instead just sound like Clive Owen. He seems sleepy and almost a second away from laughing in every frame. He’s not playing Hemingway so much as he’s playing a depressed version of Groucho Marx. The supporting cast (including a horribly embarrassing cameo from Robert Duvall as a Russian General, Tony Shalhoub inexplicably playing a Russian journalist, and a late appearance from Parker Posey who seems so lost she resorts to doing an Elizabeth Banks impression as Hemingway’s final wife and caregiver) almost embarrasses themselves in this one, but it’s not even their fault since the film is definitely the work of a bunch of hired guns following marching orders to the letter.
The one great bright spot here – other than some occasionally inspired production design when the film seems to have shelled out for nice things to show off and some great old person make-up to show Hemingway and Gellhorn later in life – is Kidman. If anyone can sell this tripe, it’s her. As Gellhorn she lends the proceedings far more dignity than they deserve, and she’s the only person who can fully walk away from this debacle unscathed. She’s radiant, hard nosed, and even sexy in spite of the writers and director constantly undercutting the material at every turn.
The film has more than enough elements to hate in it, but I feel bad if it seems like I’m throwing Owen (who I still generally like, just not here when he’s utterly miscast) or Kidman under the bus. There’s no one to blame here other than Kaufman and his writers. Owen and Kidman never have a chance from their first encounter, which is too forced, fast paced, and packed with needless exposition and banter to ever seem believable, to their final time on screen together which is just a repetitive variation on five or six other scenes in the film where Martha has to chew out Ernest for being a dumb ass for the eight billionth time. They never had a chance because Kaufman seems like he wants to make an erotic history lesson for people who have no clue who Hemingway was or any idea what happened during World War II. The most character these actors are allowed to build are often during silly sequences where they eat onions and banter about their healthiness or while beating on opposite sides of a door and yelling at each other.
Cynically designed and crafted to win a boatload of Emmy’s and Golden Globe awards, Hemingway and Gellhorn has been engineered to seem edgy and transgressive enough to be interesting and as bland and hokey as possible to appeal to the out of touch geezers who vote for these awards in the first place. It’s out and out shit, but it’s the kind of shit that cleans up at these awards shows because by their winning they provide star power and optics to their broadcasts. It doesn’t matter that HBO was wise enough to bury the premiere of it on a Monday night when no one would watch it. This should still find its way to the right people just like Meryl Streep’s performance in the equally heinous Iron Lady did. And some people wonder why awards shows are a joke. At least the joke here is a funny one, as this might be one of the best bad movies to come down the pike in quite some time. Shame about the length, though.