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July 6, 2011
Review - " Barney's Version "  -  (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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Barney’s Version
Directed by: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie
Driver, Rachel LeFavre, Scott Speedman

The picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect, fully
lived life of the impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt Barney

Barney’s Version has Paul Giamatti, who can do anything. Prompted
to laugh out loud at the absurdity of Life – as he does in one scene
that could easily have turned maudlin – he produces a booming,
earthy laugh that carries all before it. He can turn a malicious one-
liner, play cold and withdrawn, give a masterclass in wry Jewish
comedy and (literally) lose his mind, all in the same movie.

He plays Barney Panofsky, a TV producer from Montreal (though all
he ever seems to produce is a long-running soap opera). Barney is
60-something, accident-prone, paunchy and bedraggled, a man so
grumpy he even does his drinking at a bar called Grumpy’s Bar. He’s
accosted by another drinker, a burly ex-cop who accuses him of
being a murderer – yet his life, pieced together in flashbacks, doesn’t
seem that of a ruthless killer, more a hapless schmuck with a talent
for always being slightly out of place. He starts off in Rome, hanging
out with a boho crowd of artists and writers – yet, as a girlfriend
points out, “You’re not one of us; you’re a voyeur” (he’s actually got a
little business going, selling olive oil to a guy named Hymie back in
Montreal, like a good Jewish boy). That girl becomes Wife No. 1 – but
it doesn’t work out, to put it mildly. Later, back in Canada, Barney
falls madly in love with another girl (Rosamund Pike) who becomes Wife No. 3 – the only problem being that he falls in love
with her at his own wedding, to Wife No. 2 (Minnie Driver). You see what I mean about being out of place.

Barney’s story is the tragedy of a boorish man who finds True Love for the only time in his life, and doesn’t know what to do
with it. It’s a story that would work even better in a novel, where Barney’s inner voice could be heard in more detail – and it’s
based on a novel, by the great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler. The film is dedicated to Richler, so I assume it’s a faithful
adaptation – but, despite its length, it’s too picaresque to be wholly successful (maybe it should’ve been a mini-series),
especially the final section when it threatens to turn into a disease-of-the-week movie. I also seem to be alone in thinking that
Driver and Pike should’ve swapped roles, the latter being too bloodless for Barney’s Great Love – though I guess the point is
partly that crude, hockey-loving Barney is drawn to gentle, sophisticated women. He makes a list of “conversation topics”
before their big date, hoping to impress her by talking about Saul Bellow and Alphonse Daudet – but instead ends up getting
drunk, and retching in the toilet.

Barney’s Version skates close
to farce, once or twice toppling
over – especially in Driver’s
role as a Jewish princess
(“She’s got a Masters from
McGill, and she’s a good looker”
summarises Barney’s uncle
stolidly) who prefaces the
honeymoon by asking Barney
if he’s washed “it” like she
asked him to. The actress is
too charming, and sexy, for this
thankless role – you start
hating Barney for making her
suffer – though the scene
where our hero’s dad (Dustin
Hoffman) meets his future
in-laws over dinner at their
mansion is a cringe classic.
Minnie’s father glowers, her
mother looks down her nose
at the interlopers, and
meanwhile Hoffman tries hard.
“The chicken is great!”.
“It’s fish.”

Barney gets unreasonably jealous in the third act, starts behaving badly. At one point he calls his wife in New York, giving her
a hard time with his suspicions – and you expect him to look angry when we cut to his end of the phone conversation, but
instead he’s crying, tears streaming down his face at the thought of his wife with another man: he’s still hopelessly in love with
her, even as he’s pushing her away. Not to demean the likes of Thor – which are loads of fun, when done well – but that’s the
kind of moment (and Giamatti’s is the kind of performance) that keeps me watching movies. Wife No. 3 puts it best: “Life is
real. It’s made up of little things.”

The characters drive the story in Barney’s Version; the relationship between Barney and his father, Barney and Boogie,
Barney and Miriam, Barney and himself, all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Director Richard J. Lewis tells the
whole story of this man through unconventional story timelines that build up to the third act’s climax.   The film flows with the
pace of real life, the ups and downs and the in-between. But it’s through the efforts of Giamatti that the film comes to life.
Barney is the sort of man who is mostly defined by his faults. He’s fat, bald, smokes big cigars, drinks too much Scotch,
throws caution to the wind when it comes to women, and is by and large an asshole. But as his story is dealt out in
mismatched, time-shuffled chapters, we see the whole of his life and realize maybe he isn’t as much of an asshole as he
seems. Giamatti gives the character just enough of the hopeless dreamer quality that—in the end—we kinda like the old
schmuck. Possibly because we understand that poor Barney, despite his flaws, never had a mean bone in his body. That’s
as good an epitaph as most of
us can hope for.

Barney’s Version is a
fascinating character study
delivered in a series of stories
going back-and-forth in time.
The film weaves a compelling
yarn of achievement, character
flaws and reflections in an
entertaining fashion – all glued
together by an excellent turn
by Giamatti and his supporting
cast. The film comes through
like a wave of nostalgia infused
with life lessons – expressing
joy and regret in an
unpredictable swagger.
However, one can’t help but
feel that it would be much more
ordinary without the first-rate
Barney’s splendidly full life is
played out through his entire
adulthood. And we couldn’t
ask for a better central
character. Giamatti won the
Golden Globe for his role in
this film, deservingly so, and
though it seems unlikely, he
should be in talks for an
Oscar.  In this movie,
Giamatti is funny,
despicable, loving, flawed,
but most of all human. In the
supporting cast, the
standouts are Hoffman, who
gets a great send-off; Pike,
who is glorious as Barney's
true love; Driver, who is a
pistol; and a marvelously
deadpan Harvey Atkin as
Driver's dis-approving father.