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'Hemingway And Gellhorn' On HBO Review: Nicole Kidman And Clive Owen's Crime Against TV

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Here's what you should do on Memorial Day weekend: Weather permitting, go outside. Party. Have fun with your friends and family.

But if you are stuck inside and in desperate need of "entertainment" that will make you laugh until you throw up, there's "Hemingway and Gellhorn" (9 p.m. ET on Monday, May 28 on HBO), which stars Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. Now that the first season of "Smash" has ended, this is the best hate-watching fodder we'll probably have for many months.

Why is hate-watching the only realistic option? Because loving or even liking this expensive misfire is simply not possible. Even more than last year's turgid "Mildred Pierce," "Hemingway and Gellhorn" is a gigantic missed opportunity, a jaw-droppingly trying waste of time. Don't let the fancy names in the cast fool you: This is a stupid, stupid movie.

We don't hate-watch Syfy's Saturday movie offerings -- "Sharktopus," "Mansquito" and the like -- because they know they're trash and they good-naturedly embrace their energetic lack of quality. Not only is "Hemingway and Gellhorn" wretched, it is bathed in pretentiousness and pseudo-intellectual delusions of grandeur. It's not just crap, it's expensive, painfully "artistic" crap starring a lot of actors who should have known better once they took a look at the script, which is hilariously awful.

But it's the HBO way, especially when it comes to the network's movies and miniseries, to throw a lot of famous names and big checks at bloated projects that appear to have an aura of prestige and awards-season potential about them. It's an approach that has recently reached the point of diminishing returns, and you have to wonder if, in the case of "Hemingway and Gellhorn," if the network has realized its mistake (hence the decision to dump this turkey on a holiday weekend).

So you can take what follows as my attempt to get you to not waste two and a half hours of your life on this -- I watched so you didn't have to. Alternatively, what follows can be the jumping-off point for your own hate-watching experience, because, Lord knows, "Hemingway and Gellhorn's" sins aren't limited to the following:

  1. There's no tension. If you know much about literature, chances are you know Gellhorn, a noted author and reporter in her own right, was one of Hemingway's wives. If you know anything about history, you know how the Spanish Civil War went; same goes for World War 2. If this were a good film, none of that would matter; the director (Philip Kaufman) and writers (Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner) would still be able to find interesting ways to inject dynamic energy into Hemingway and Gellhorn's competitive and combustible relationship and would be able to tell complex stories about war coverage and the price paid by those chronicling the horrors of their age. But everything about this film is formulaic, predictable and flat. Hemingway's previous wife, Pauline (Molly Parker), is a typical shrew, stagy scenes unfold exactly as you think they will, relationships are sketched out in clumsy ways and the whole affair usually displays a strange lack of energy, despite the titanic personalities it's allegedly depicting. Apart from a few scenes toward the end that display a little spark, the whole thing is generally self-conscious, didactic and self-indulgent, and you end up with little sense of what these people were really like.
  2. The dialogue is seriously hilarious, or mind-numbingly terrible, depending on how inebriated you are when you watch it. As I watched the film, I spent a lot of time writing down leaden sentences, but then I had to stop when my hand got a cramp from overuse. Here are a few gems: Orson Welles, storming out of a gig narrating a film about the Spanish Civil War: "The son also drinks a little too much!" Hemingway's editor: "Every time I think he can't get any better, he does!" Hemingway to Gellhorn: "I swear, by Christ, you're more of a man than most men I've met." Also, "Gellhorn, you inspire the hell out of me!" And finally, "There's nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit down at your typewriter and bleed." From a journalist in a Spanish bar: "There are atrocities on both sides. The important thing is to report with objectivity." Gellhorn: "Objectivity! Fuck all your objectivity shit!" You get the idea. It's ironic that a movie about two writers is such a hacky, lazy, unsubtle mess, but I'm sorry to say that's the case.
  3. For a long time, it makes Martha Gellhorn seem kind of aimless. Gellhorn was an dynamic, independent and unusual woman who reported on a number of global conflicts, wrote novels, magazine pieces and non-fiction books and had a string of fascinating lovers. But for much of the film, thanks to the clunky writing and Nicole Kidman's diffident performance, Gellhorn comes off as a faintly passive observer. The first half of "H&G" covers the couple's early acquaintance and their adventures during the Spanish Civil War, so for the first hour and a half, Gellhorn mostly hovers around the margins, watching Papa in action, wearing red lipstick and, at one point, providing sound effects for a film on the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn's a little more dynamic in the last third of the film, but on the whole, the reserved Kidman seems miscast.
  4. Lars Ulrich of Metallica plays a film director. He wears a beret. Normally, a bit of random casting like that would be fun in a good movie. Here it just induces more head-scratching in a film overstuffed with far too much of it.
  5. The movie inexplicably fails to capitalize on Clive Owen's magnetic qualities. Somehow, "H&G" manages to de-hottify one of the film world's finest (and most attractive) actors. The dowdy period glasses and clothes the actor wears, not to mention the cartoonish, pugnacious version of Papa he plays in the film, ultimately make watching Clive Owen a chore, which is a crime. There's little or no intelligent exploration of what made Hemingway tick, and Owen's Papa ends up seeming like an overbearing, petulant child prone to excessive drinking and even more extravagant tantrums (insert your own Ham-ingway pun here). When Hemingway turns on Gellhorn in the final section of the film, little nuanced groundwork has been laid and he comes off as a bully lacking complexity, not a difficult, but charismatic man lashing out from a place of insecurity and instability.
  6. It wastes a star-studded supporting cast. David Strathairn plays John Dos Passos; Santiago Cabrera plays Robert Capa; Robert Duvall has a small, hammy role as a Russian military officer; Tony Shalhoub plays a shadowy Russian operative; Parker Posey turns up as the next Hemingway spouse late in the film, etc. Too bad all the supporting characters, big and small, are one-dimensional and uninteresting. They look, feel and sound like Wikipedia entries come to life (and some are even less nuanced than that).
  7. It does something so jaw-dropping that I can't even believe I saw it. I'd given up on the film about halfway through, but then Salon critic Willa Paskin tweeted about a scene toward the end of the film that almost has to be seen to be believed (spoiler alert). At one point, Kidman's face is superimposed over real footage of the stacked bodies of concentration camp victims, as Gellhorn recalls her time at Auschwitz and Dachau. It's a shockingly maudlin, melodramatic moment, one that would be deeply questionable in the best of films. Sadly, this ill-conceived moment emblematic of "Hemingway and Gellhorn's" self-indulgent view of itself as Important Art.

Seriously. Go outside. Forget you even read this.