Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Based on what is arguably Hemingway’s worst novel and certainly Spencer Tracy’s worst movie, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (as opposed to what, NBC? Ed Begley Jr.’s The Old Man and the Sea?) didn’t have a chance of being any good. Don’t feel guilty about watching it just to snicker. Bloated with fatuous self-importance, it’s the best new comedy of the week.

Anthony Quinn stars as Santiago, the Cuban fisherman who refuses to give up after months of failure to catch a fish. This was Hemingway’s metaphor for faith, guts, and sheer, stubborn cussedness.

Quinn is, of course, a great old cuss, but he seems too aware that he’s supposed to be playing A Mythic Character From Great Literature. He carries himself with portentous deliberation and makes his voice get all quivery whenever he has to deliver one of those classic Hemingway lines like “Fish! I am still strong and you have the hook in your mouth!”

Since Hemingway’s slim book was just about this old guy going out every day to catch a fish and not catching it until the end of the book, the TV movie had to be bulked out a bit to make it last two hours.

So — get this — screenwriter Roger O. Hirson has added a couple of characters: an unnamed urbane, successful, but writer’s-blocked American novelist and his beautiful but neurotic wife. Do you understand what’s going on here? NBC has put F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald into a Hemingway story! They should have called it Roger O. Hirson’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The Fitzgerald character is played by Gary Cole, who, in an attempt to make sure people tuning in late don’t think they’ve stumbled onto a very special episode of Midnight Caller, wears a fake mustache that looks like two sardines kissing.

Cole’s character spends all his time sitting on a pier, dangling his feet in the water, scribbling in a notebook, and staring at Quinn as the old man drags that damn boat in and out of the sea day after day after day. Cole’s voice gets all quivery when he has to deliver one of those classic Roger O. Hirson lines like “Eighty-four days without a fish — how do you deal with that?”

Does Brandon Tartikoff know his network is airing this? D-

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
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