Friday, January 28, 2011

Barney's Version (***1/2)

Directed by Richard J. Lewis


Barney Panofsky is the kind of character that is tailor-made for an actor with the talent of Paul Giamatti. Grumpy, condescending, always quick to jump to judgment. How is it that Giamatti is able to dig so deep and find the inner charm, the shining humanity that's been hidden away? He's done so with films like American Splendor and Cold Souls, and more specifically in an incredibly dense performance in the 2004 film Sideways (one of my own personal favorites). Hell, he's probably the only actor that could have done so well in John Adams, the HBO miniseries that covered the life of one of history's greatest curmudgeons. He does it again in Barney's Version, a film that chronicles the perpetually rough-around-the-ages (and fictitious) life of television producer Barney Panofsky. We're talking about a man who can't even open his flip cell phone without making it seem like a burden. Yet, somehow, Giamatti makes him captivating.

The film is based on Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel of the same name - and bares a striking resemblance to his most beloved work from 1959, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. We get a snapshot of Mr. Panofsky's most formative years, as a man with a penchant for kicking back cigars and an obsession with professional hockey. When we first meet Barney, he's in Paris, he's there with his friends, Leo (Thomas Trabacchi), a provocative painter; and Boogie (Scott Speedman), a brilliant writer with a weakness for various vices. Barney's about to get married to Clara (Rachelle LeFevre), a crass, mentally disturbed woman with a flair for the dramatic and a talent with painting. He doesn't particularly love Clara, but he feels obligated because she's pregnant. This is a running theme in Barney's Version: getting married out of obligation and not for love. Needless to say, that marriage is short and taxing, getting off to a bad start once certain secrets are revealed.

Barney's second wife (Minnie Driver) is a verbose, obnoxious woman with an insanely rich father and a Master's Degree in which she's particularly proud of. This is an even shorter marriage (as far as commitment is concerned). At his wedding reception, he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful woman in a ravishing blue dress who is kind and smart. Barney thinks he may have finally fallen in love, and when she updates him on the Montreal Canadians hockey score, he knows she'll have his heart forever. So, he does his best to rid himself of his second wife, all the while sending flowers weekly to Miriam's office in New York. When the second Mrs. P decides that a sexual ran-de-vouz with Boogie is in order - an event that leads to Boogie's sudden, unclear death - Barney finally has a reason to get a divorce.

That Miriam is even able to warm to Barney is a testament to her unbelievable heart. This was a man who successfully sabotaged to marriages and professed his love to her on their first meeting - on his wedding day. But she is able to love him and marry him and Barney may have finally found the woman that can make him happy. We never question Miriam's decision to be with him, mostly because Rosamund Pike fills her with such grace and wisdom. Pike is a woman who is beautiful in a regal sort of way (which made her perfect casting for 'Jane' in Joe Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice), and it makes sense that Barry would fall for her so instantaneously. But credit must go to Pike for detailing Miriam with such patience and attractiveness. She loves Barney because she sees how she's able to bring the love out of him.

The film is told in a retrospective format, as an aging Barney, struggles with Alzheimer's Disease. He must deal with the publication of a dastardly novel written by a detective convinced that Barney murdered Boogie. Whether or not Barney did actually have a hand in Boogie's death is left fuzzy until the film's end, where Barney puts together a story that seems perfectly sensible to him, even if it might not to others. What matters in particular is that the audience buys this explanation, and this leads to the film's central achievement. Director Richard J. Lewis is able to make Barney endearing and fascinating. We don't groan when we see him make another bad decision or speak too soon, we genuinely feel bad for him as he steps on his own toes once again. Not since last year's Julia have I ever rooted so strongly for such a wrongheaded human being.

I've heard that Barney's Version barely scratches the surface of Richler's novel and I'm sure that may be true. It's swift and sudden in certain moments where a book is sure to be delicate and patient. From what I've read, the film's screenplay adds the character of Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), Barney's loudmouthed father who's able to have moments of wisdom slip through in between naughty stories about his younger days. It's no surprise that Hoffman is terrific in the role, providing mounds of comic relief and showing wonderful chemistry with Giamatti. Having never read the novel, I can only say that the film spans time in a way that's efficient and effective, glossing over the usual details that make books what they are: not films.

Paul Giamatti recently won a Golden Globe for his performance in this film and while it's not career best work, it certainly deserves to be ranked amongst them. What he does with Barney is so pure, often forceful, but with enough general reticence to make him bearable. When Barney begins to depreciate from Alzheimer's, it's a sequence that is truly heartbreaking, but not in the usual manipulated movie way. It's heartbreaking because watching Barney fade is to see someone we know ourselves fade. That's how well we feel we've known him by the end. Does the film's final act become a bit of a tear-jerker? Why, yes, but its earned that right. It showcases the illness in a way that's personal, but not merciless, and all the pain we feel comes right from the eyes of Giamatti who really makes you love this schmuck.

I don't imagine this film will hit it off with American audiences. Unfortunately, a man of Giamatti's physical specimen will probably never be able to lead a hit film. The film was just nominated for an Academy Award for its make-up, a nomination that is so just that I'm surprised that it actually happened. But the film was made in Montreal, so perhaps those Canadians care little for Oscar gold, since a formidable campaign was never really shown. It is the kind of film that is right up the Academy's alley: quirky and unique in its own way, but dealing with topics (disease, dated costumes, marriage) that they love to dig their teeth into. Well, like Barney, I don't exactly see Giamatti enjoying putting on the tux for a Sunday night.

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