Directed By: Richard J. Lewis
Screenplay By: Michael Konyves
Based upon the novel by Mordecai Richler
Produced By: Robert Lantos
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 132 minutes
Release Date: January 14, 2011
Review Date: January 21, 2011
Barney’s Version, a title that hardly needs to clarify the point since it offers no one else’s side of the story, could benefit from another. Instead, we are stuck in the regretful mind and with the deteriorating life of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a man whose contemptible lifestyle of vices and hesitancy that borders on abuse leads him to a point where perhaps his one comfort is that he will forget the entirety of it before his death.
The movie is so intent on wallowing along in Barney’s misery that it bypasses the only chapter of his life in which he might have been content, if not happy, with a photographic montage — watching as his kids grow up and ending with a smiling family portrait. Ultimately, even those kids can’t muster any positive feeling for the old man — one hates him, the other can only pity his lonely state. It is a story full of drunken encounters and long drags on countless cigars, told by a bitter man, signifying despair.
Barney sits alone late at night, looking at old photographs, and calls up his ex-wife, whose new husband answers. A not-too-pleasant conversation ensues.
He runs a production company that makes a dreadful soap opera. He drinks alone at a nearby bar before shuffling home to drink some more, although this time, he encounters a detective (Mark Addy) who has just written a new true crime book. Its subject happens to be Barney, who was involved in the disappearance of his best friend decades ago — the body was never found, though Barney and a fired gun were near the last place he was seen.
So Barney, with an unhappy present and without a promising future, remembers the past, before he begins to forget it in the same way he can’t remember that his car is sitting back at the office and not parked on the street. In Rome in 1974, he married his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), when he believed she was pregnant with his child, only to discover the father was actually one of his mooching, artistic friends. Their marriage does not end happily, thanks, in part, to his forgetful stoner friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman).
Barney packs up for greener pastures back home in Montreal, working as a fundraiser for the family’s studio (the one he later runs). There he meets the high maintenance woman who would become his second wife (Minnie Driver). He’s as convinced that he loves her just as much as he was about the first, though not anywhere nearly as certain about Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he meets at his wedding reception. After he suggests they fly away to Rome that night, she, wisely, leaves, and he follows her to the station where he professes her love. She, wisely, tells him to leave, though, of course, with a flattered smile.
His courtship of Miriam while he’s still married is a pattern for Barney — grasping for some goal that is unattainable primarily because he isn’t certain what it is. It’s a common syndrome of the likable loser type, although the suggestion that Barney is likable — while having some semblance of a basis in the fact of his three marriages — is a stretch. His dad Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a retired cop who blames anti-Semitism for his career of walking the beat despite his apparent penchant for less-than-civil service, on the other hand, gets away with his shady past on charm alone — or maybe it’s simply that we aren’t as mired in his character as we are with Barney.
And we are in the trenches of self-pity and self-determined failure with Barney, a character we might loathe if not for the simple virtues of the disbelieving eyes and manner of Giamatti. While director Richard J. Lewis maintains a monotonous tone (not aided by screenwriter Michael Konyves’s unambiguous flashback structuring of Mordecai Richler’s novel), Giamatti hints at a realization of gallows humor at the seemingly endless cycle of doom within Barney, never more spot-on than during a scene of mourning in which Barney is simultaneously devastated and laughing at the state and location of the corpse (he died smiling, to say the least).
There are minor redemptive moments for Barney as he nears a kind of serenity, but they never fully make up for the discomforting man Barney’s Version makes him out to be.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.