REVIEW: Garden of Eden Isn't Just Lesser Hemingway; It's the Worst of Him
Though based on the Hemingway novel published 25 years after his death, Hemingway's Garden of Eden feels more like the result of an ungodly alliance between Harlequin house writers and the cut-and-paste masterminds at A&E Biography. Hemingway worked on the novel from 1946 until his death, leaving its 200,000 words unpublished. The story is roughly autobiographical, derived in part from to his second marriage (to wealthy Pauline Pfeiffer), but allusions to Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, whom Hemingway reviled, seem to figure as well. As adapted by former Paris Review editor James Scott Linville and directed by John Irwin, The Garden of Eden suggests the bad first novel that Hemingway never wrote. There's a reason This Side Of Paradise never made it to the screen.
David Bourne (Jack Huston, Depp-ish in a moustache and floppy haircut) is an American author of note tooling around the Riviera and nursing his portfolio of Stateside press clippings. He meets Catherine (Mena Suvari) at a party and they fall into hypnotic love. She likes his gallant way with a cigarette; he is presumably drawn to her drop-waisted swagger, provocative banter, and independent wealth. Naturally, they are married without delay. As they often do, the time, place, and art direction help establish tone and setting, but as the story of David and Catherine's contentious relationship goes on, the sumptuousness of the design (creamy whites for miles under azure Mediterranean skies connote privilege and luxury) and the potency of the context (the long-mythologized excesses of the literary expat scene in the 1920s) seem more like the thing itself.
Suvari wobbles under her share of the aesthetic burden, playing the damaged, mid-Atlantic chippy with a wooden discomfort her thinly written Single White Flapper character can ill afford. Derisive of David's need for critical approval and resentful of time he might spend at the typewriter, she attempts to neutralize his muse with her naughty parts. Then it seems she would prefer to merge identities: Catherine likes kinky role-playing and eventually gets a matching floppy haircut that she dyes platinum blonde; David is goaded to hit the peroxide himself. She tires of small places as quickly as she does the big ones, so the couple play Riviera pinball up and down the coast in her bright blue two-seater car. But is it real or just a role she's playing? She demands that David write about her and their lives of bankrolled "excitement." Terrified of being boring (much like the vapid suburban teen Suvari played in American Beauty) she becomes the most tedious S.O.B. imaginable.
It's unclear whether Irwin grasps the extent to which Catherine's dullness within the story infects the film itself. Desperate to keep things interesting, she brings in a third party -- an Italian heiress named Marita (Caterina Murino) -- then taunts them both with her bitterness. Instead of playing out and then immortalizing the story Catherine has in mind, David retreats into one about his childhood. As with their unconventional marriage and the burgeoning love triangle, we are presented with David's sudden inspiration in the least interesting way possible: by cutting to a literal enactment of it. Set in Africa, the story taking shape in David's mind involves a young boy and his father (Matthew Modine) tracking elephants on the African savannah. The young boy grows attached to an elephant and is heartbroken when his father hunts him down in between gropes of African women. It's less a diversion from the suffocating relationship drama at the film's heart than a lane switch. Equally dull and over-determined in its imagining, on paper the finished product inspires a fiery reaction in Catherine, and I can't say I blamed her.
No! That's a terrible thing to say! It was his art and she ruined it -- to no one's surprise because bitches be crazy, and if you want to do serious work you probably shouldn't keep one around. Unless she's ethnic and thinks you're a genius. This is not just lesser Hemingway; it's the worst of him. The Garden of Eden was cut, to much controversy, by two-thirds for its publication, and we'll never know his original plan, or its elegance of theme. By 1986 his legend had distorted the line between what he was and what we wanted him to be. What is on the page is the only insurance an author can secure against such eventualities; this adaptation, with its dubious intentions shoehorned right into the title, is further evidence of what can happen when those precautions fail.