Barney’s Version has good acting, deplorable characters

Barney’s Version – 2011

Directed by Richard J. Lewis

Starring Paul Giamatti, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, Rachelle Lafevre, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood, Saul Rubinek, Dustin Hoffman

Written by Michael Konvyes based on the novel by Mordechai Richler

The book Barney’s Version has an interesting premise.  Written as if it were an autobiography by a main character, whose memory is not at all reliable, and then edited posthumously by his son, focusing on that son’s interests.  Throw a trial for murder in the midst, and you have the makings for an exquisite drama in the vein of The Sound and the Fury.  That none of this makes it into the movie Barney’s Version should be cause for concern.  That the movie ends up being watchable despite missing these key elements is a testament to the actors.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a barely likable character at the start of the story.  He is pestering his ex-wife just because, well that’s what he does.  He goes through life as if in a somewhat cranky haze.  Flashback leads us to the time just before his marriage to the first of three wives.  That his wife ends up being pregnant (and losing the baby) with one of Barney’s friends is a precursor.  This kind of thing seems to happen a lot in his life.  By the time he’s finishing with wife number two, the betrayal is quite convenient, because he fell in love with his third wife upon meeting her at…his second wedding.  Third time’s a charm, for a least twenty years.  He’d pursued this woman all throughout his second marriage.  After this third marriage, he continues this.  Habits are hard to break, even, or maybe especially, if they are deplorable habits.

This is as far as I will go with the description of the story, only to say that about a third of the way through Barney’s Version, I wanted to start over.  With new characters.  These are not people I wanted to know, aside from perhaps Barney and his father, an ex-cop played by Dustin Hoffman.  Self-involved, excessively medicated and miserable, to a “T.”  And the sober characters are even worse.  If I were to meet, Barney and his father at a bar, I would stay for a while, but then I would leave as soon as I got wind of their messed up existence.

This is not to say that the actors did not play these characters well.  In fact, just about every performance was a good one.  Their was nothing, however, drawing me forward to learn more about these people, even after one of them disappears unexpectedly.  It’s just like that person and the people who know him would all continue being miserable, just miserable somewhere else.  Big loss.

Giamatti is the reason I picked up this film, and he does not miss a miserable beat.  Like c-3P0, misery is his lot in life and he lives and breathes it compellingly.  Hoffman, for the first time in I can’t say how long, is engaging without being a collection of mannerisms which he seems to have relied upon since winning his Oscar for Rain Man.  Scott Speedman gives an uncharacteristic performance as well, playing Giamatti’s best friend Boogie, a struggling, self-involved and destructive author.  This renders the question, why isn’t there any other kind?

As for the wives, Lefevre, as Clara, is not around long enough to leave anything but the odd impression that she probably was more fleshed out in the book.  The line about Barney’s heart is awkward in an intriguing way, but we find out little more.  Minnie Driver is wasted as wife number two.  She could play a privileged shrill beast in her sleep.  Again, though, the feeling is that more of her was left on the page than on the screen.  As the third wife, Pike is ethereal.  She knows that she is Barney’s dream, but only halfway shoos him away.  After they are married, she takes opportunity to let him stew in his well-honed habit of jealousy, and then chastises him for it.

This is not to say I have the slightest bit of sympathy for Barney.  Giamatti makes damn sure that we can’t.  It’s not that Barney is without kindness, as we see, later in life.  It’s just there’s plenty of selfishness to go along with it.  No one could have brought this character more to life.

Lewis does the best he can with the crucial missing elements of the film.  He is not, however, able to make it anywhere close to as interesting as it should be.  I suspect it was a foolish decision to ever bring the book to film without making it, perhaps, 3 times as long.  Maybe that could have given the misery a more worthwhile payoff.

(*** out *****) 

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