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Barney’s Version (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 21

Barney's Version

Barney’s Version


Starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Scott Speedman, Mark Addy, Saul Rubinek, Rachelle Lefevre, Jake Hoffman, Anna Hopkins, Cle Bennett, Harvey Atkin and Maury Chaykin.

Screenplay by Michael Konyves.

Directed by Michael Konyves.

Distributed by  Sony Pictures Classics.  132 minutes.  Rated R.

The novels of Mordecai Richler are so dense and complicated that they are difficult to break down into a two hour movie.  That hasn’t stopped filmmakers seduced by his distinctive narrative voice to try – some of the better past attempts were The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and Joshua: Then and Now (1985).  Both were impressively well-made adaptations that could not quite capture the experience of the novel, but did as well as could be expected.  And those scripts were actually written by Richler, so you know it was not just some hack trying to boil down the essence of the story.

Barney’s Version – based on his final novel from 1997 – is in the same boat.  It’s a very good movie that suffers somewhat in comparison to its source material.

I may even go so far as to say it is the best film made of Richler’s novels (only Duddy Kravitz is in the same ballpark, though a film that Richler wrote specifically as a screenplay, the original George Segal/Jane Fonda version of Fun With Dick & Jane, would still be my favorite cinematic version of his work).  Barney’s Version as a film isfunny, fascinating, far-ranging and yet eventually not quite the equal of the novel.

This is not necessarily a horribly bad thing – the book was an extremely good one and movie adaptations of fine literature will inevitably be unable to capture the depth and the narrative thrust of the printed word.

However due to strong writing, interesting situations and some fine performances – particularly by Paul Giammati as the title character – Barney’s Version definitely does succeed well as a movie.

And if you haven’t read the novel, it is even more impressive.

Barney’s Version is – as you may imagine from the title – one man’s look back at his own history.  It encompasses several decades, three marriages, two children and two mysterious deaths in the life of a cynical Canadian television executive.

Cynical is a bit of an understatement.  He’s self-deprecating to a stunning degree.  His production company is called Totally Unnecessary Productions and his favorite bar is a local dive called Grumpy’s.  Barney Panofsky is a man who is both entranced and appalled by love, pickled by drink and power, passive aggressive and massively wounded and hardened.

He’s sort of the epitome of the great Sigmund Freud by way of Groucho Marx (by way of Woody Allen) saying: “I could never join a club that would have someone like me as a member.”

He only found love once and yet he was married three times.  It was perhaps just bad timing that he met his one true love at his own wedding to another woman.

We first meet Barney in Europe in the 1970s.  He is a money man in the midst of artists and is marrying a woman (Rachelle Lefavre), a woman that he doesn’t really particularly seem to like much – and who regularly cuckolds him – because she is pregnant and he might be the father.

Flash forward a few years and Barney – now a widower – again gets involved, this time with a spoiled Jewish American Princess (Minnie Driver) who exasperates him much more than she seem to attract him.

It is at this second wedding that Barney meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the convenience date of a gay relative.  Barney falls for her hard, even asking her out on his wedding day and pursuing her from afar for years before she finally agrees to go out with him.  However, despite a long and relatively happy marriage and two children, it is Barney’s fate to destroy all he loves and even this relationship hits the rocks.

In fact, Barney’s longest relationship (other than his good-hearted-but-crass father, played with a twinkle in the eye by Dustin Hoffman) is with Boogie (Scott Speedman), the kind of good looking, artistic man that Barney always aspired to be.  However, Boogie has a lot of skeletons in his closet and when he disappears after a heated drunken argument with Barney, a local police detective makes it his mission to find Barney guilty of murder.

Throughout, the film has been deftly juggling comedy and drama, but as Barney ages, a serious illness changes the film, going from smart and funny to more serious and morose.

Honestly, the earlier sexy, funny parts of Barney’s existence are more intriguing than the later, more tragic ones.  Then again, that’s usually how it works in real life as well.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: January 13, 2011.

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