Review: Barney's Version
PLOT: Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a schlocky TV producer living out his twilight years, looks back at his life; examining the relationships he had with his three wives (Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike), aged father (Dustin Hoffman), and drug-addled best friend (Scott Speedman).
REVIEW: BARNEY’S VERSION is one of the highest pedigreed Canadian films to come along in a while. In addition to the top notch cast; anchored by two American stars (Paul Giamatti, and Dustin Hoffman), this also happens to be based on a novel by the patron saint of Montreal literature, the late Mordecai Richler. Obviously, this is an attempt to recapture the magic of an earlier Richler adaptation, THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, which gave Richard Dreyfuss one of his earliest leading roles back in 1974, and has become something of a Canadian institution.
As both a Canadian, and a Montrealer (which is where the vast majority of BARNEY’S VERSION takes place) I appreciate this film, which is very enjoyable- although far from the masterwork some Canadian critics have pegged it as. In the lead, Paul Giamatti has one hell of a role, probably his best since JOHN ADAMS. Actually, it has a lot in common with his role as Miles in SIDEWAYS, with him playing a chronically grumpy, neurotic middle-ager, although Barney’s much luckier in both business and love than poor Miles. Still, this doesn’t keep Barney from being something of a prick, although with Giamatti playing him, you can’t help but like the guy at least a bit.
The film picks up with Giamatti enjoying life as a freewheeling art patron in Rome circa 1971, until his life of womanizing, and casual drug use with best pal Boogie (Speedman) is cut short by his impregnating the crazed Clara (Lefevre- who makes a rather attractive shrew). Their union is mercifully cut short, and Barney returns to his native Montreal, where he goes to work producing cheesy Canadian TV financed as both a tax shelter, and way to provide cheap Canadian content to the local TV stations which by law are forced to play a certain percentage of Can-co. This is actually the way a lot of Canadian TV functions, giving us shows like THE LITTLEST HOBO, THE BEACHCOMBERS, NORTH OF 60, etc. In a cute little Canadian in-joke, Paul Gross, in his DUE SOUTH mountee garb, plays the star of Barney's TV show, which were supposed to belive has been succesful enough to run thirty seasons.
Once back in Montreal, he meets his second wife, as played by Minnie Driver (whose character is listed in the credits as “the second Mrs. P”), who is even more intolerable than his first wife. Still Barney seems somewhat content until meeting the gorgeous Miriam (Rosamund Pike) as his own wedding, which happens to coincide with the Habs (Montreal Canadians for those not in the know) winning the Stanley Cup in the 1976 final. From there, BARNEY’S VERSION hits its major plot point- which is Barney’s relationship with Miriam.
As played by Pike, Miriam is pretty much the ideal object of affection, and its obvious right from the start she’s far too good for the chronically miserable Barney, who pretty much comes to the same conclusion. BARNEY’S VERSION is the latest in a series of strong roles for Pike, who’s making a big name for herself in films like this, and MADE IN DAGENHAM. A former Bond girl, Pike is probably one of the most gorgeous creatures you’ll ever lay your eyes on, but she gives Miriam a warmth which makes it somewhat believable that she’d go for a somewhat schluby guy like Barney.
My issues with BARNEY’S VERSION are that, despite many great performances (including a great supporting turn by Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s ex-cop Dad, which is the best thing Hoffman’s done in about a decade), BARNEY’S VERSION can’t help but feel like a particularly good TV movie, rather than a full-fledged feature. Director Richard J. Lewis is mostly known for his TV work on shows such as CSI, and he does a very effective job with BARNEY’S VERSION, even if it’s not a particularly dynamic looking film. It’s still a fun, enjoyable film although I did feel that they go a little overboard trying to tug on the heartstrings in the final thirty minute stretch. I also found the old-age make-up used to age Giamatti and Pike wasn’t terribly convincing. A murder-mystery subplot also felt extraneous, although considering it was an integral part of Richler’s original novel, I suppose it’s inclusion is somewhat unavoidable. I also could have done without all the cameos by Canadian directors like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Denys Arcand, who are a bit distracting, and all but wink at the camera in their cutesy roles. I also felt that Lewis didn't really capture the flavor of life in Montreal. Sure, we get shots of a few institutions like Grumpy's Bar, but the city has a lot more character than you'd think from watching this.
Overall though, BARNEY’S VERSION is a good, solid film featuring a trio of excellent performances from Giamatti, Pike and Hoffman, as well as a dynamic, change of pace role for UNDERWORLD star Scott Speedman. This is a good film, and well-worth seeing, even if it’s not one of the real Oscar contenders some have been pegging it as.