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STUDIO: Sony Pictures Classics
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
- Audio Commentary
- Behind the Scenes of Barney’s Version
- Mordecai Richler: Barney’s Version
- On the Red Carpet
- 92nd Street Y Q&A with Paul Giamatti and Annette Insdorf
The World According to Barney.
Written by Michael Konyves. Directed by Richard J. Lewis. Acted by Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, Bruce Greenwood, Mark Addy, Anna Hopkins and Jake Hoffman.
We follow Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) over thirty years, three wives and a life filled with highs, lows and not much in-between.
“Oh, Barney. You really do wear your heart on your sleeve. Now put it away. It’s disgusting to look at.”
-Barney’s first wife, Clara.
Barney Panofsky wanted to be a crusader when he was young, a marauder in a life filled with decisions he makes for himself, whether they are right or wrong. When we first meet him in the film, he’s in his 60’s and the producer of a Canadian television show that is getting ready to start on its 30th season. 30 years running the same television show and making the same decisions over and over again. So when we jump back to the mid-70’s to get to know Barney in his late 20’s, it’s fascinating to see the excited man he used to be. There’s a light behind his eyes and a spring in his step that’s completely absent from the curmudgeonly old man we meet in the present; a real sense of destiny and purpose he carries with him everywhere. Watching the man he was slowly change into the flawed and difficult man he becomes is a true joy to watch, as the film never makes it easy to like Barney, but it always makes him real.
I know it’s stating the obvious to talk about how good of an actor Paul Giamatti is, but I was unprepared for how incredible he is in this. From playing the funniest character in my favorite comedy of all time (he’s Veal Chop in Safe Men) to his mesmerizing turn as John Adams, he has proven that there’s no range he cannot reach with effortless control and precision, but I still wasn’t prepared for feeling like I met and got to know a Jewish television producer from Montreal through three decades of his life. Every bit of internal dialogue he has with himself is present in Giamatti’s eyes (great band name), every ounce of subtext is visible in that cherubic face and scenes that might not have worked very well on the page, or even felt very cinematic, are free-flowing and authentic coming from this wonderful actor. The fact that he’s backed up with a very strong supporting cast doesn’t hurt too much, either.
Barney’s three wives are played by Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike and all three women are so different and complicated that it’s one of the best showcases for female actresses I’ve seen in some time. Lefevre is Barney’s first wife, Clara, who he marries because she’s pregnant and his youthful guilt feels a responsibility to her he can’t walk away from. Lefevre is very tragically seductive in the role and (even with her limited screen time) creates a three dimensional woman that, in the hands of a lesser actress, could have been a forgettable stereotype of a mentally ill art girl. Minnie Driver gets to play it much broader as Barney’s spoiled JAP second wife who never even gets a name other than Mrs. P. In the script I doubt the character would have been very sympathetic, but Driver plays the Second Mrs. P with just enough vulnerability that (even though we know she’s not a fit for Barney) we wish her all the luck in the future. It’s at his wedding to Mrs. P. that Barney meets the true love of his life, Miriam, who is played with such effortless grace by Rosamund Pike, that it’s easy to see why Barney would chase her all the way to the train station (during his wedding party) to ask her to go away with him. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Pike, as I found her performances in Die Another Day and The Libertine to be fairly flat and lifeless, but her performance in this shows that she can bring an inner life out of a character that’s written to be almost as angelic as Jessica Chastain was in Tree of Life. It’s a wonderful role for her and if she can keep getting parts that bring out this side of her then she’ll have no problem monopolizing ethereal female roles for years to come.
The stand out supporting role of the film for me though was Barney’s father, Izzy, fully embodied by Dustin Hoffman. I haven’t seen him this energized and focused since I Heart Huckabees (although I loved him in Perfume, as well) and because of the warmth he exudes in every frame, Hoffman and Giamatti create one of the most indelible father\son relationships I’ve ever seen. I have a less than ideal relationship with my dad, so well-rendered paternal relationships in films can either effect me really deeply or, if there’s a single note that doesn’t play, kill a film for me entirely. In Barney’s Version, the love these two grown men have for each other is so beautiful and profound that when their relationship reaches its crescendo, I found myself a blubbering mess, almost unable to finish the film. If only it had been able to keep that lever of emotional resonance taut until the closing credits, then I could have given the movie something close to a perfect score but, due to some third act problems, it ends with more of a whimper than a triumphant bang. To get into that, I must warn you of SPOILERS AHEAD.
After Barney says an incredibly powerful goodbye to his father, the final 20 or so minutes of the film is him fairly quickly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. It feels rushed in a film that’s close to two and a half hours long and hadn’t felt rushed for a second. Again, Giamatti is excellent and completely sells being an elderly man losing his memory, but after seeing a devastating scene of him trying to peel a banana, it cuts to Rosamund Pike at his grave saying her goodbyes and then instantly goes to the closing credits. I dunno, it feels like we’re missing a scene there, to crystallize the themes of the film and hit the audience with either another heart rending scene of explosive acting or bring a sense of closure and catharsis to the incredibly intimate yet epic story of Barney Panofsky. Instead you’re left with an “oh, well that’s nice” moment that feels like a balloon with the air slowly seeping from it. I haven’t read the book by Mordecai Richler and maybe the ending of the film is more in keeping with the spirit of the novel, but it felt anti-cinematic to me. END SPOILERS.
I might have made this film sound like somewhat of a slog but it’s also very funny and warm throughout. If the drama ever becomes too much to handle there’s always a lovely moment of levity around the corner. Scott Speedman gives the best work I’ve ever seen from him as Barney’s best friend, Boogie, and his character provides some early doses of charm and vitality that almost make the film feel like a romantic comedy for the first 45 minutes of its running time. The mystery of his character’s fate is a fascinating subplot that (without much screen time at all) sometimes feels like the key to unlocking who Barney really is and whether or not he’s supposed to be a hero, anti-hero or possibly a villain. In any other movie, the mystery subplot probably wouldn’t have worked, but because Speedman’s character feels so lived in and authentic, we’re instantly invested in getting to the bottom of his disappearance.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the cameos in this film of some of the greatest Canadian filmmakers on the planet such as Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Denys Arcand (Love and Human Remains), Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) and David Cronenberg (Motherfucking Videodrome, son). Picking them out as the film progresses is sort of like you’re flipping through an issue of Highlights in the dentist’s office. Also, the star of the show Barney produces (O’Malley of the North, a show about a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman in lust) is played by Paul Gross, who also played a Mountie on Due South back in the day, which was directed on occasion by Richard J. Lewis who is also the director of Barney’s Version. Lewis also directed K-9: P.I. which starred Jim Belushi, who was also in The Mighty Ducks cartoon series about an intergalactic hockey team and hockey is a sport beloved by…Canadians! Illuminati, bitches.
Barney’s Version broke me down three times in the first two hours of its running time and I fully expected to be a quivering mass of man flesh by the time the closing credits rolled. Instead I was just pleased that I wouldn’t have to use another box of Kleenex or have someone walk in and ask me why I had snot in my beard. It’s a lovely film that still stays with you long after you’ve moved on to watching CSI or something, but it’s not as powerful as it could have been. The moments of greatness it does achieve are many and glorious, however, and that’s more than enough to warrant your time and heartstrings. But, seriously, my beard is a disaster.
It looks beautiful and sounds beautiful and is filled with wonderful behind the scenes footage showing you how much of a labor of love this film was for everyone involved. It also has a featurette about the author of the novel Mordecai Richler and the profound impact his novels have had on people around the world. I don’t know that it’s a movie I would ever watch again, but if I did I would be proud to own this Blu-Ray.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars