Barney's Version, 2010.
Directed by Richard J. Lewis.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, Scott Speedman, Dustin Hoffman, Jake Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood and Mark Addy.
The picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect, fully lived life of the impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt Barney Panofsky.
It isn’t good form to typecast actors. But what to do when they perform them with such finesse? Just as jazz aficionados get their kicks from subtle variations in familiar songs, or when cinephiles ejaculate praise for subversions of genre, watching an actor play the same role over a number of films can make for fascinating stuff.
Paul Giamatti’s your guy for sympathetic, everyman loser. It feels like a bit of waste if he does anything else. Not that he can’t perform other roles, because he can and very well. It’s just he makes such a good loser. Barney’s Version is essentially a character study of this archetype, spanning across several decades of the titular Barney’s (Giamatti) life. The story is in four parts – his three failed marriages and the final, lonely aftermath.
The film begins, as is sometimes the fashion, near the end with Barney already seasoned with age. He’s a work-driven, heavy-drinking television producer for ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’. You get the impression he would use that company name to sum up his own life too.
And Paul Giamatti looks oooooooooold. When did he get so old? Sideways was a while back, but not that long ago? He isn’t, and it’s a testament to his performance that he can fool you into thinking so. Sure, make-up helps, but all that age is locked up in his body. He has the posture of a hunchback; his shoulders practically engulf his neck, putting his head at an angle like a badly hammered-in nail. It isn’t until the ‘flashback’ to his first marriage as a young man that you realise Sideways wasn’t made in the late-70s. Unless he can act ‘young’ too…
This first marriage was unplanned and ended miserably. The second, to a wealthy, Jewish academic (Minnie Driver channelling ‘Janice-from-Friends’), was very planned. That ended miserably too. But it was during this second marriage, at the wedding reception to be precise, that Barney falls in love for the first and only time in his life when he happens to glance upon Miriam (Rosamund Pike) through an archway. He chases this woman to her train back to New York that evening and declares his undying love for her. Understandably, having only just met Barney at his wedding, she tells him to go back to his wife.
Stringing all these marriages together, aside from Barney himself, are two subplots. The first is the mysterious death of Barney’s best friend for which he may or may not be responsible. This story haunts the rest of his personal and professional life, but intentionally peters out near the end. It’s nice to see a plot that could easily be the main narrative of another film treated so indifferently.
The second is Barney’s mental condition. The film is littered with tiny moments that first appear as eccentricities. Forgetting where he parked his car comes across as just a little absent-mindedness. But didn’t he take a cab? These moments of forgetfulness are slowly revealed as symptoms of Alzheimer’s and the film’s final act becomes a heartbreaking portrayal of the disease. We’ve watched Barney develop as a character, warts and all in marriages and deaths, to see it stripped away as he forgets his children, misremembers his wife and looses his mind.
The main criticism of the film is that nothing much happens. But since when has a good film had to be about anything? Some of the best films in history have very little narrative substance. However, despite having two superb performances in Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman (as his father), and a poignant final reel, Barney’s Version is really quite dull.
It’s obvious that a book is the film’s source text. The plot stretches itself too thin across such a long and diverse life and its murder subplot is tedious when translated to screen. These sorts of things can work wonderfully in literature. Film can struggle to make it interesting.
But no fear, Giamatti’s next appears in Win Win, a favourite at this year’s Sundance. He plays a sympathetic, everyman loser.
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