Veteran director John Irvin (The Dogs of War, Raw Deal) returns from his decades long stint in direct-to-video purgatory with an ill-advised Hemingway adaptation. The Garden of Eden was controversial when first released, and also known for the many editorial liberties taken with the manuscript. The novel's choppiness translates over to the film (itself apparently shorn from an original running time of 111 minutes), which raises a slight amount of fuss before subsiding into nothingness for the conclusion. Ostensibly the story of a young married couple - Hemingway stand-in David Bourne (Jack Huston) and new bride Catherine (Mena Suvari) - confronting the vague threat sexual experimentation poses to their nuptials, Garden of Eden threatens to go nuts but doesn't have the spirit. With a flat lead performance from Suvari and a lack of anything but Cinemax-standard nudity to enjoy, audiences will be unenticed by the all-round package.
There's not much to Garden, which essentially shunts David and Catherine from honeymoon city to city. They're in love, the only potential fly being David's interest in his writing career: he likes to keep up with his clippings. Catherine obviously sees his writing as competition. Her unorthodox solution, after they settle down at a seaside villa, is to bring back Marita (Caterina Murino) as a sexual playmate for both of them. Having experimented with sexual androgyny to a mild extent - Catherine gets on top once and assumes penetrative dominance - Catherine's gambit eventually wins David over.
In between the narrative (such as it is), Irvin throws in an adaptation of "An African Story," which is in the manuscript but has also been anthologized separately. Here, it serves both as a kind of origin story for the Hemingway cult of macho - a young boy doesn't want his father to kill an elephant on safari, seemingly filling him with a resolve never to appear weak before - and as the linchpin in the love triangle: Marita loves it, while Catherine thinks it's disgusting. The film might as well stop there since it can't raise the stakes any further, and surprisingly, it basically does.
Much of the film consists of Suvari pouting and/or flatly reciting dialogue one vaguely suspects is meant to be seductive and alluring. In the decade since American Beauty, Suvari has if anything shrunk as an actress; she's wildly unconvincing as a smart-set flapper of the period, much less as someone genuinely charismatic. The cheap-looking production keeps deploying one or two extras to walk through the background, or a period car for color, but most of the film stays safely indoors at the villa, where a hand-cranked phonograph player and a cocktail bar can stand in for the period. Short on atmosphere and/or genuine sexual frissons, Garden of Eden keeps going until it's done, having remained pointless all the way through.
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Jack Huston, Mena Suvari, Caterina Murino, Richard E. Grant, Carmen Maura and Matthew Modine
Director: John Irvin
Screenwriters: James Scott Linville
Producers: Tim Lewiston and Bob Mahoney
Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and some language.
Running time: 91 min
Release date: December 10,