It’s simply a matter of time, space, and physics that you can’t satisfactorily condense decades of a person’s life into a mere couple of hours, no matter how adept at cinematic shorthand and efficient characterization you may be. Sheer science necessitates a story finds some focused thematic element or watershed shift in personality from which to outwardly construct your sweeping epic of life and love. Or perhaps one could say it’s necessary to develop some algorithm by which you can process the thousands and thousands of important events that make up a life lived, and choose the most important and most complementary with which to tell a story. Barney’s Version doesn’t really do any of that very well, but goddamn does it have strong performances from great actors, to the point that the equation ends up more balanced than it has any right to be.
Barney Parnofsky, as played by Paul Giamatti, manages to do to the audience what he does to most of his friends and loved ones in the film- convince them that he’s more than a questionably morale, spiteful, petty little man by demonstrating enough charm, tenacity, and moments of profound love to overshadow his many transgressions. The film occasionally stoops to cheap tricks to make Barney’s decisions easier to swallow, but Giamatti imbues the character with enough complexity that it never really needs to. So as we progress through a story that spans Barney’s first marriage in the 70s to the modern day, where he is a grayed, grumpy television producer who finds every opportunity to make trouble for his ex-wife’s new husband, we see the best and worst of Barney without ever judging too harshly.
There are a number of approaches to Barney’s story that the film seems to be employing throughout the 2+ hour run-time, but it never sticks with one for very long. At first it seems the mystery of Barney’s involvement with his best friends disappearance/possible murder will be a driving element, but that strand is often discarded. The film doesn’t really know how to handle this element in particular, so it creates a lot of tension and then pays it off with a still-vague retelling of the event in question. Without a clear idea of what happened, the bulk of the film is robbed of any tension stemming from it. There is a pretty clear conclusion presented at the end, but by this point whatever it says about Barney feels more like it’s muddying the portrait of the man rather than adding nuance to its details. The portions of the film dealing with Barney’s romantic life are definitely the strongest, but the different segments covering each of his three marriages don’t build on his character in a clear way that sharpens the tragedies or elevates the joys. There are hints that Barney is burdened by professional discontent, and a need to vicariously feed off the intellectualism of others, but each is only briefly explored before some other theme takes over for a while.
Ultimately Barney’s Version is a messy collection of moments from Barney’s life that more or less linearly covers his years on earth. Such a thing would not be worth your dollar were it not for Paul Giamatti sculpting a character that accumulates each of these thematic developments and makes them a part of a performance that is far for more sophisticated than the film in which it is housed. Giamatti brings warmth to Barney’s bitterness, passion to his fickleness, and romance to his self-involvement. He finds the the right note for each era of Barney’s life, capturing the aimlessness of his flirting-with-Bohemia youth, and the desperation of his increasingly confused old age.
It doesn’t hurt that Giamatti has great performances from his supporting cast to bounce off of, including Dustin Hoffman at his most energized and entertaining in some time. Hoffman has a lot of fun dipping into the occasionally bitter but mostly joyful guise of Barney’s father, Izzy Parnofsky, and the pair have some excellent moments together. Rosamund Pike is another fine addition to the cast, playing Miriam- Barney’s third wife and true love. Lovely and loving, Pike brings a moral center to the film and to Barney, and his ceaseless attempts to win her heart are some of the best of the film. Finally, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, and Saul Rubinek all do interesting work in parts of varying sizes, all of it bouncing off of Giamatti.
On a scene-to-scene basis, the script is strong, though how much dialogue and handling of character dynamics is pulled from the original Mordecai Richler novel, I can’t say. The photography and pacing are classy and clear, so it really is the structure and choice of scenes that hamstring this from being more than awards bait that confuses “episodic” for “detailed.” In that regard, director Richard J. Lewis’ TV background seems to work against him, but the quality of every other element of the film suggests he has a strong storytelling abilities that would produce good results with a clearer story.
In any event, Barney’s Version works as a well-textured quilt representing the often-contradictory components of a complex man, one woven with the finest materials, if not the finest handiwork.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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