It’s not hard to spot the allure in filming stories like The Garden of Eden, big messy works that exceeded even the grasps of their authors. But there’s also an enormous amount of risk inherent in adapting something that wasn’t entirely finished in the first place. Pair this with a writer famous for his basically unfilmable novels and you have Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, a turgid, unsatisfying rendering of the author’s risqué uncompleted opus.
John Irvin’s adaptation falls pretty to the same snares that likely marred Hemingway’s ability to wrap up the story, mainly the collision between a high-toned, sepia-tinged remembrance piece with the callow sex fantasy that inhabits the story’s core. Wasting time in Europe after finishing his WWI service, young writer David Bourne (Jack Huston) falls into a whirlwind romance with the rich, voracious Catherine (Mena Suvari). The extended honeymoon that follows finds him steadily overwhelmed by her dominating sexuality, a situation that reaches its climax when she installs the exotic Marita (Caterina Murino) as their relationship’s third wheel.
In this Riviera vacation atmosphere, all sun, sand, and skin, the dialectic of opposites the film attempts to enforce instead melts down to little more than kinky foreplay. There are wispy suggestions of underlying ideas, about the mutability of gender roles and the way in which masculinity, Hemingway’s stock topic, reacts when faced with a threat to its supremacy. Dedication to this theme crests early on, when Bourne, withering under Catherine’s commanding influence, dyes his hair blond to match his wife’s. That this ends up more as a visual joke than anything else indicates the film’s ultimate disinterest in actually broaching the issue.
The sexual roundelay that follows, with the three characters trading beds and bards, is tiresome, a flaw that traces back to the source text. To offer some respite, Hemingway’s Garden of Eden flashes to the story Bourne is currently writing, a tale of elephant hunting in Africa that mirrors the main attraction. This is a cheesy, distracting flight of fancy, but at least spares us from the increasingly dreary main conflict, with Suvari’s agonizing approximation of what a wealthy jazz-age flapper should talk like, all creakily elevated diction and overwrought pauses. It’s a dreadful performance, against which Huston, who’s done recent work in the same time period, playing the half-faced Richard Harrow on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, manages to come out relatively unscathed. The same can’t be said for Hemingway’s story, itself already a flawed working bordering on the tawdry, which has been shaped into an ultimately hollow and tedious film.