Film review: Barney's Version

Mordecai Richler is well served by a wry and affecting adaptation of his final novel, Duncan Wu says

January 20, 2011


Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Barney's Version

Directed by Richard J. Lewis

Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler

Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman

On limited release in the US; released in the UK on 28 January

Every day is like pushing an avocado through a cheese grater: all you're left with is a handful of shit," says Dustin Hoffman about halfway through Barney's Version. As I heard him say it, I thought it an old-fashioned thing to say, and Barney's Version is in some ways an old-fashioned movie; it could have been made in the 1970s. It's about the adult life of a cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking television producer whose life is lived under suspicion for murder; who goes through three wives, but on the third finds the love of his life; and who, having enjoyed a happy and long-lived marriage, ends it in a moment of thoughtlessness. To cap it all, the film depicts a life that, for all its ups and downs, is terminated by Alzheimer's - a meaningless, cruel disease that strips its victims down to nothing.

All right, this may not be the kind of film that will have you walking out of the cinema wreathed in smiles, but then, as someone once said, "None of us are leaving here alive." Although it ends badly, Barney's Version contains some marvellous performances, not least that of Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky. So fully realised is his portrayal that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Giamatti's speciality is desperation - whether the by-product of eagerness, anger or infatuation, all of which he is required to display at various points. He is also a fine comic actor, and - whether by perfect timing, a facial expression or some other effect - some of the funniest moments in this film are his. He is required to age about 30 years during the film, and does that very convincingly, too.

Hoffman is effective as Barney's father, Izzy, because he and Giamatti make such good sparring partners. All their scenes possess a tension that helps bring out the comedy as much as the intense emotion that binds them together. The moment when Izzy says to Barney "You done good" is one of the most powerful in the film. I found myself slightly irritated by the fact that Hoffman seems constantly to be smiling, even when he's supposed to be dead, as if his character's desire to be likeable had survived beyond the grave. On the other hand, that characteristic heightens the absurdity of some scenes, as when he gives Barney a revolver as a wedding present.

The British actress Rosamund Pike is excellent as Barney's third wife, Miriam. She makes the perfect foil for Giamatti, with whom she is required to trace the course of a marriage that, having begun with an act of impetuous love, turns sour and comes to an abrupt end. One of the most powerful scenes is that in which Barney tries vainly to save the relationship. "We have a life," he says to her. "We had a life," she replies.

The idea behind Barney's Version, adapted from Mordecai Richler's final novel, is to present the story of a man's life, replete with his errors, his tragedies, his vices, his failings and his flawed psyche. For some of the film, it is possible that Barney could be a murderer. Even as played by an actor as cuddly as Giamatti, he is not a likeable man, yet it's hard to feel anything other than kinship with him because of his recognisability. Indeed, the film strives honestly to confront a series of truths about human nature - most obviously about the differences between men and women. Miriam is clear-sighted where Barney is impulsive and romantic; she is expert at talking about her emotions where he is inarticulate; she accepts the failure of their marriage when he tries to ignore it. Yet the film never lapses into sentimentality and keeps its emotional temperature subdued.

Although those familiar with Richler's novel will miss its subtleties, this adaptation is an accomplished one that recalls such film classics as Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Carnal Knowledge (1971). Like them, it incorporates elements of satire into the drama to produce an undeluded portrait of its flawed central character. The surprising thing is that, unlike those works, which are products of youth, Richler's is the product of age. His frustration (and ours) derives from the fact that, at the end of the story, Barney's life is going to fizzle out. It can be no accident that Barney's television company is called Totally Unnecessary Productions, for disease will render Barney unnecessary, too. Anyone who appreciates such dry, sardonic humour is bound to enjoy this film.

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