“Everything is right until it’s wrong,” says one character in “Hemingway’s Garden of Eden,” and smirks. “You’ll know when it’s wrong.” The line has been lifted verbatim from the source, Ernest Hemingway’s enigmatic and allegedly autobiographical novel published a quarter century after his death. But in the context of this half-baked adaptation, it sounds more like self-critique: Early on, it becomes clear that much is wrong with “Garden of Eden,” which squeezes grand literary gestures into clumsy soap opera terms.
Set in the roaring twenties, the story revolves around dashing young writer David Bourne (Jack Huston) and his steamy relationship with Catherine (Mena Suvari), an American woman he meets in Europe. After their marriage, the couple settles into a cozy getaway alongside the French Riviera, where Catherine begins to experiment with their sex life by bringing home an Italian woman (Caterina Murino), an act that quickly places David at the center of a dangerous love triangle. At least, it would seem dangerous if it weren’t so overtly silly: Neither disposable entertainment like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” nor epically romantic like “Jules and Jim,” the ménage á trios in “Garden of Eden” indulges in constant innuendo and winds up marred by the staginess of a softcore porn. Director John Irvin hovers on the edge of titillation, but appears to get cold feet whenever the eroticism passes a certain threshold. It’s as though someone forgot to tell him that film is a visual medium.
Meanwhile, the screenplay (by former Paris Review editor James Scott Linville) suffers from a stilted progression and overly theatrical performances that pay lip service to Hemingway rather than offering an original interpretation of his work. Suvari in particular looks like a discardable figure of camp, with one eyebrow permanently raised in a pose of plastic seduction. Huston, in his better moments, looks like the poor man’s Johnny Depp. Even then, he’s more Jack Sparrow than J.M. Barrie — a caricature whose frustration is cause for amusement rather than compelling drama. But in this case, the amusement is accidental.
The autobiographical nature of the story (and the Africa-set story of Bourne’s developing novel that takes place within the story, ostensibly based on Bourne’s childhood) creates multiple levels of narrative that scholars have poured over since the novel’s posthumous publication in 1986. Each of those layers falls prey to the same flaws, as “Garden of Eden” fails to either pull back the veil masking Hemingway’s true intentions or explain the strengths of the original text. For a sensual thriller that the author supposedly considered too revealing, the adaptation doesn’t reveal enough.
criticWIRE grade: C-
John Irvin’s “Hemingway’s Garden of Eden” opens in select theaters this Friday, December 10.