After coming to attention for his bit parts in The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan and The Negotiator, actor Paul Giamatti began to receive popular and critical acclaim for his leading roles in American Splendor and Sideways, two roles that have since come to define him as a performer. Nominated for an impressive 45 awards between 2001 and 2008, and winning 26 of them (including an Emmy and a Golden Globe for HBO’s John Adams), he has continued to play interesting and studied roles in films such as Cold Souls, an existential piece that brought the full power of Giamatti’s acting to bear. In Barney’s Version, based on the 1997 Mordecai Richler novel of the same name, it is Giamatti who is once again asked to carry the emotional weight of the film.
Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a seemingly ordinary man, tells the incredibly candid tale of his life. Spanning four decades, we witness the brief and tempestuous marriage to his first wife, the bohemian Clara (Rachelle Lefevere, Twilight), and the ‘Second Mrs. P’ (Minnie Driver, Conviction), a Jewish princess who doesn’t seem to notice that Barney has lost interest in her. Indeed, it is on their wedding night that Barney meets and is captivated by the beautiful Miriam (Rosamund Pike, Made in Dagenham), and he begins a lifelong pursuit to win her affections. Filled with wry humour and tragedy, including the disappearance of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman, Underworld: Evolution), Barney’s Version is a memoir with a difference.
The adaptation of Richler’s fictional novel, ostensibly an unreliable memoir of Barney with footnotes from his son, was a potentially impossible task. Not only is it an often rambling account from a fairly unlikeable character, it is very much tied to the culture and vibe of Canada at the time of publication, not to mention a reflect of Richler’s own alter-ego. In the film version of Barney’s Version, we are presented with a fairly straightforward narrative, although this doesn’t necessarily make it any more reliable. With the film told largely in flashback, the older Barney – prompted by a detective who still believes that Barney is guilty of a murder some years before – looks back on his own life in an incredibly frank and candid manner. However, as we learn throughout the film, Barney eventually develops Alzheimer’s Disease and thus places “Barney’s version” of events into some doubt. Yet the truth doesn’t phase anybody in the telling of a good story, and for the most part, this is a pretty good one. Simultaneously unremarkable and extraordinary, it is a clear example of the Hitchcock (via Truffaut) adage “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out”?
Paul Giamatti once again captivates at the heart of this character piece. Once again, he plays a wholly average person, perhaps only remarkable in how much of an unlikeable bastard he is for much of the film. Yet here he draws a line through from his Sideways performance, once again portraying someone who we (nor the love of his life) has any real reason to like, let along spend significant amounts of time with. Yet we, and Miriam alike, do want to spend time with this grumbling curmudgeon, thanks largely to the performance of Giamatti. Indeed, this is very much an actors’ piece of cinema, with the otherwise light narrative carried by the solid cast performances. Dustin Hoffman in particular, as Barney’s ex-detective father, shines in this role and brings much-needed warmth and humour that is sometimes missing from the misery-guts Barney.
The Reel Bits: A solid cast is paramount when Barney’s version of events takes 134 minutes in the telling, although this is certainly a step-up from director Richard J. Lewis’ last feature, the 2002 direct-to-video K9: P.I. Bolstered by a terrific group of actors, Barney’s Version overcomes some of the meandering elements to present a solid human drama, with just enough hints of humour.
Most features follow a tried and tested path in terms of the traits of the protagonist, with constructing a character that audiences will connect with of paramount importance. Whether they fall into the hero or anti-hero category, are teeming with charisma or are suitably flawed, or make good or bad choices as the narrative progresses, the ability of the central figure to not only engage the audience, but make them care about his or her plight, is key to the success of the film. In Barney’s Version, the titular personality is described at the outset as a man who has screwed over everyone he ever knew or cared about, a proposition at odds with standard practice yet certain to spark interest nonetheless. However, despite the intrigue generated by the undeniably incorrigible character from Mordecai Richler’s novel of the same name, and regardless of the impressive effort put in by star Paul Giamatti to imbue Barney Panofsky with a layer of authenticity to temper his otherwise unbridled arrogance, director Richard J. Lewis (best known for his television work on crime procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and screenwriter Michael Konyves (a veteran of TV movies such as Fire & Ice) struggle with perfecting the balance of curmudgeonly and captivating.
As the film unravels Barney’s skewed and sprawling re-telling of his incomparable life story, it weaves a series of disparate threads into a rich tapestry that represents his existence. Like any item that has been crafted with care, it cultivates a certain sense of eclectic appeal, however ultimately remains a little rough around the edges. The source of such obvious anxiety is easy to spot, with the idiosyncratic protagonist proving difficult to translate to the screen. As his episodic tale of decades of excess, incidences of outlandish behaviour and constant acts of self-sabotage continues over the feature’s lengthy duration, the resulting film resembles a series of vignettes, rather than the cohesive effort presented in print. Although the innate ability of the central character to simultaneously perpetuate awe, abhorrence and unease is blatantly apparent throughout the various sub-plots and links the film together, it isn’t enough to sustain attention or endear the audience. Instead, despite a number of compelling pairings of Golden Globe winner Giamatti with Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike and a surprisingly excellent Scott Speedman, the film is rambling instead of riveting, as well as being both mildly annoying and moderately amusing in equal measures.
The Reel Bits: Barney’s Version is intermittently charming yet curiously uneven, with Paul Giamatti outstanding as the lead you’re more likely to hate than love. Although not always effective in bringing the material to the screen, the film’s distinct personality shines through courtesy of its star, with the high profile supporting cast also doing their bit.
Barney’s Version is released 24 March 2011 in Australia by Hopscotch.