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Hemingway & Gellhorn on HBO

There was a 15-year period from the mid 1970’s to around 1990 when Philip Kaufman was one of the most respected and consistent writer/directors going. I mean his resume was stellar. After a not-too-shabby start directing 4 diverse films from 1964 through 1974(and writing 3 of them), he began his remarkable streak of critical(and often box office)giants. The summer of 1976 saw the release of Clint Eastwood’s smash “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, which was mostly penned by Kaufman. It received wide and wild acclaim. Then, after a nearly 5-year directing hiatus, he hit pay-dirt with his nearly unanimously praised remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in December of 1978. Many, if not most, saw it as superior to the 1956 original. No less a critical god than the great Pauline Kael(writing for The New Yorker)deemed that “it may be the best film of its kind ever made”. It also made a nice chunk of change. Within a matter of months he released what would become a huge cult favorite, “The Wanderers”. Philip directed a screenplay that he wrote with his wife, based on a novel by Richard Price. It was not a big financial hit when it opened, but the book’s author loved the loose adaptation. Its reputation has grown steadily since 1979. Then came a story collaboration with George Lucas, for a modest little 1981 release called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Ummm…well, you know. October 21, 1983 was my 18th birthday. The day also ushered in two of my favorite films of that decade. One was David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone”, which became the first of his work that I ever saw in a theater. And Philip Kaufman’s epic “The Right Stuff”(his masterpiece?)saw light on the same day. And, of course, I watched both in separate Bergen County art-houses that don’t even exist any longer. “The Right Stuff” did not rake in the dollars, but it won 4 Oscars, and was also nominated for Best Picture of 1983(eventually losing to weeper “Terms of Endearment”). Early 1988 ushered in his colossal(his masterpiece?)”The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. Like “The Right Stuff” before it, he both helmed and penned it. Both were based on beloved novels and were modest in cash return. And “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” also saw Kaufman utilizing a technique of inserting newly filmed material into archival footage—more on that later. In late 1990, with a film once again co-written with his spouse, Rose, Kaufman managed to turn the film ratings system on its head. The MPAA had to create a brand new rating for the artistically adult, but certainly not pornographic, “Henry & June”. It was the first film to be given the NC-17 rating, which was intended to signify serious fare, that was a bit too provocative for the standard ‘R'(Cronenberg would have a similar flirtation with the sometimes dreaded as box office poison rating with his uber-controversial 1996 film, “Crash”). Things then took a decided quality drop in 1993 with Kaufman’s “Rising Sun”, which he co-wrote with the book’s author. Michael Crichton. It was a box office hit, and I find it to be an underrated murder/mystery, but it was not well-received critically amid insider stories of script battles and character changes. I anxiously awaited, what I hoped to be the big comeback after an over seven year break, when I attended 2000’s “Quills” on opening day. It garnered a modicum of respect(the National Board of Review named it their Best Picture of 2000), especially for the performance of Geoffrey Rush, but sputtered to a weak box office run. Early 2004 was the nadir. “Twisted”, which I still haven’t convinced myself to see, tanked at the box office and was almost universally derided. Why was the then 67-year-old Kaufman accepting what seemed like “hack” work? Maybe I’ll take a look someday and try to figure it out. And after that lengthy introduction, fast forward 8 years, to the now 75-year-old Kaufman’s latest comeback.                  After accumulating an astonishing 15(!) Emmy nominations recently, my hopes were at Everest level for HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn”. With Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn and Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway I was understandably intrigued. The more than capable pen of Barbara Turner(2000’s “Pollock”…and, btw, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mom)kept my hopes extraordinarily high. Mixing new and archival footage like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” before it? This one was a can’t miss! It’s rotten to watch your heroes fall. Kaufman really disappoints with this soapy, bloated behemoth that clocks in at 155 minutes. There is some outright embarrassing character work here from superb actors like Robert Duvall and Tony Shalhoub. And I’ve often sung the praises of Brit Clive Owen, but his Hemingway is all caricature and his accent is stupefyingly inadequate. Look no further back then last year’s “Midnight in Paris” for a Hemingway that plays his mannerisms and clichés to perfection(via actor Corey Stoll…admittedly in a much different type of film). Kidman? She looks fantastic(with those mile-long legs of hers, especially)as the young Gellhorn in the 1940’s scenes. But she only gets the opportunity to shine when donning the old age makeup and playing an 80ish Gellhorn during interspersed interview/narration snippets. Also, what’s with that sex among the rubble scene? It’s pretty, but it comes across as darn silly. And the much ballyhooed archival footage thing doesn’t fly at all. It looks fake, and it seems unnecessary. Maybe they could have used that part of the budget to more accurately represent Key West at the unconvincing San Francisco locations. I’m sure that there is a fabulous tale to tell from the tumultuous relationship of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, but Philip Kaufman’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn” simply isn’t that story. Reportedly, it was his relationship with Gellhorn that inspired Hemingway to write one his best known novels. However, despite Emmy’s impressive nomination support, I’m afraid it’s the stature of director Philip Kaufman, for whom the bell tolls.         Grade:  C-

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