Living an unsuccessful love story

The adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version tells the poignant story of a life marked by both joy and tragedy, one lived fearlessly and propelled by the conundrums of ludicrous actions

Paul Giamatti stars in the titular role of Barney
Image supplied by: Supplied
Paul Giamatti stars in the titular role of Barney

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and Rosamund Pike

Directed by: Richard J. Lewis

Screenplay by: Michael Konyves

Duration: 132 minutes

Four Out of Five Stars

So what is Barney’s ‘version’? Is it his angle to a life inanimate, or another edition into real life in all its cynical glory? Is Barney’s Version, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, just a misrepresentation of normalcy?

Simply put, Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is a successful man living an unsuccessful love story. His subsidiary friends toast to how Barney is their only truly successful friend, but when it comes to him and women, they pout at him like a child who has lost his mommy.

Barney marries a floozy, indignant wife of a Russian mobster (played by Rachelle Lefevre) because he impregnates her. They fight at the altar and she commits suicide because Barney missed a chicken roast. He then marries a well-off but equally vexing daddy’s girl (Minnie Driver) and can’t stand her. He grits his teeth while she complains about his expressionistically esoteric paintings. This is a mismatch.

Barney likes three things: his father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman) a retired police officer, cigars and Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Barney falls in love with her at his own wedding. Pathetic? Yes, but Barney’s life is a conundrum of ludicrous actions. He is a man who laughs and cries readily at the same time. That’s the way his life is, a joke and a tragedy.

Miriam is from New York and Barney thinks he is destined to marry her. He uses his junkie friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) to help him divorce his wife, but ironically, a horrible accident follows. Still, why would Miriam wed Barney? The stout, unattractive and volatile Barney.

I posit Miriam is allured by a man that loves her so passionately. That is one of the most attractive things in anyone. We can accept Miriam for who she is and furthermore, bestow her as an important asset to Barney’s conscience.

What surprised me about Barney’s Version is how typical director Richard J. Lewis portrays a life that is complex, yet muddled with apathy and charm. This life is formula, a little derivative—founded on love and propelled by it—and if this is about a reclusive TV producer, you expect something out of the box. I was let down, but atoned by Lewis’s control of a more simple approach. He really captures the texture of real life, but using enough caustic humour to emphasize Barney’s sleepwalking attitude.

This is an emotional movie too, told as picaresque. Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are the essential pair. Hoffman’s Izzy is aberrant but cynically astute like Barney. They read each other’s eyes like a book they have read a thousand times. Barney is enchanted by his father, his guts, his advice and his downright silliness.

Barney is the key character and Giamatti must have just missed the Oscar nomination. He doesn’t play the role, he denies it. He rejects the camera’s presence and reminisces.

By the end, we hit an irony. Barney begins to lose what he has savored his whole life: memories. Some good, mostly bad. He sees a ball descend from the sky and it faintly reminds him of a deep regret. But that is the downturn of a life that comes off simplistic, but also reminds us assuredly that life is a series of memories in motion and they will ultimately fade away. Or at least, that was Barney’s version.

So, there we have it: a near-great film about the stubborn quest for greatness.

Barney’s Version plays until Thursday at the Screeing Room.

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