Paul Giamatti anchors this loving, problematic adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s great novel
Published: February 16, 2011
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Opens Feb. 18
In the latter third of Barney’s Version a betrayal is revealed that captures everything this cinematic adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s immortal 1997 novel gets right. Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) sits on a bed next to his wife Miriam (Rosamund Pike). She knows he’s hiding something, and suspects something horrible—only not the horror he can’t bring himself to tell her. He has to imply, talk around it, because he can’t come out and say it. And when she realizes what he’s saying the pain darts through her face. It’s an ordinary yet monumental scene, absent histrionic acting, melodramatic music, or any other annoying distraction to disrupt the everyday drama onscreen. It’s that rare instance where a movieland relationship acknowledges love’s banality: These moments are as mundane as brushing your teeth, except that how you feel in relation to the world—and the person sitting right next to you—has irrevocably changed.
This no-muss approach from director Richard J. Lewis, a television veteran making his feature debut, allows a superb cast to carry the movie. Giamatti puts his deep, soulful reservoir of prickly empathy, comic physicality, and beguiling unattractiveness to marvelous use as the titular Barney, a curmudgeonly Montreal Jew who has made a pretty good life for himself producing the lowest-common-denominator TV show O’Malley of the North. His success allows him to satiate his hungers for fine cigars, booze, and hockey. That comfortable, selfish desire to please his appetites is partly why he lives alone in the movie’s present, a divorced man whose daughter Kate (Anna Hopkins) puts up with his willful behavior and distasteful impudence, such as the harassing late-night phone calls to his ex-wife’s politically correct husband Blair (Bruce Greenwood). His son Michael (Jake Hoffman) certainly hasn’t forgiven him his trespasses. And Barney’s mood doesn’t improve when a former cop, Detective O’Hearne (Mark Addy), publishes a book accusing Barney of getting away with murder years back.
Barney’s Version is just that, Barney remembering how he became the angry, volatile, full-of-life man he is now. The movie cuts back and forth from Barney’s temperamental present to his free-wheeling 1970s time in Rome, where he joins his drug-friendly, aspiring womanizer novelist friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) and where his first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) takes her own life; his return to Montreal and safe marriage to his second wife (a phenomenal Minnie Driver)—marvelously and spitefully known only as “the second Mrs. Panofsky” in the novel, and the movie thankfully doesn’t name her either—an upper-crust Montreal Jew who mentions her McGill masters degree at any opportunity; and Miriam, the mother of his children, third wife, and the human being he can’t imagine himself without. Best of all is Barney’s dad Izzy (scene-stealer Dustin Hoffman), a former cop who isn’t going to let anybody put down his working-class roots and is especially not going to allow anybody to think that just because he’s Jewish he’s not as tough on crime as any goy in blue.
The only problems arise if you’re a fan of Richler’s intoxicatingly carnal, carnivalesque novel. What makes Barney’s version of the events in his life so unforgettable is that Barney can’t be trusted, or even trust himself. He’s beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s, and his memory mistakes—and the occasional correction of the text by his son—pepper the reading experience. It’s a swirling beast of reliably unreliable anecdotes, as messy as life itself, and while the movie commendably compresses and reconfigures the novel’s storyline to make it easier to handle, Lewis, screenwriter Michael Konyves, and producer Robert Lantos—who has been developing this project for more than a decade—opt for more conventional transitions. A moment or object in Barney’s present—a photo, an onion in the freezer—triggers a flashback, but the slippery subjectivity of Barney’s memory never really manifests itself, and the movie feels more conventional because of it.
That’s a minor quibble primarily of interest to Richler fans, and if anything the movie may encourage more people to pick it up the novel, recently tie-in reissued in paperback. If it does, again, credit the cast—Giamatti, Hoffman, Pike, and Speedman especially. Richler’s novels mine relationships, and this adaptation foregrounds how one man’s interactions with the people who matter most to him—his father, his best friend, and the woman he cherishes above them all—define him, in all his wonderfully misanthropic glory.
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