Barney’s Version: Fresh from his personal triumph at the Golden Globes – winning Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for this performance – Paul Giamatti struts his comic stuff across this long and winding story of one man’s colourful life.
Everyone formed an orderly queue to tell Giamatti that he was simply mah-vellous in Sideways, but in Barney’s Version he takes his extraordinary skills in delivery, timing, and empathy to another level. It’s just a shame the Oscars don’t also reward such underrated abilities, as he’d no doubt be a shoo-in there too.
The movie is based on the similarly long and winding novel by the late, great Canadian author Mordechai Richler, whose previous work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was also made into a movie, starring the young Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role. Richler himself wrote the screenplays for Life At The Top and Fun With Dick And Jane, so he was no stranger to the transformative effect of film. After Richler’s death, there was a tortuous journey from page to screen for this, arguably his finest work, but after well over two hours in the company of his protagonist, Barney, I can say it was most definitely worth it.
Events come fast and furious at the beginning of the film, as Barney looks over his life in a series of flashbacks. We see wedding number one, in Rome to Clara, a seventies hippy who trips and dips once too often, and dies. Then it’s back to Montreal, where Barney is pushed and squeezed into getting hitched to the spoiled, rich, loud and highly-sexed ‘Second Mrs P’ (joyously played by Minnie Driver).
Unfortunately, at the wedding reception he has a dual revelation: that he cannot stand the idea of spending the rest of his life with his new, bossy wife, and that he’s literally just spotted the woman who he actually does want to spend it with, Miriam (Rosamund Pike at her coolest). What timing! How can he ditch the former and woo the latter? Should he pursue Miriam on his wedding night? Is he trapped? Can he go through with his honeymoon?
So Barney’s romantic life veers all over the place, helped and hindered by his ex-cop father, Izzy (broadly played by Dustin Hoffman) and his druggie best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman). Meanwhile, the one thing that remains a constant is his career, with his film company, Totally Unnecessary Productions, knocking out a long-running, rather dodgy soft-porn series that punctuates and underscores his own biographical story. But will Barney mess up his life if he gets exactly what he wants?
With his wearied, hangdog expression and look of utter devotion whenever he’s around Miriam, Paul Giamatti’s Barney is a terrific creation. And he’s the beating heart of this film. He’s an accident waiting to happen, and a self-flagellating bundle of insecurities, but it’s nevertheless hard not to like him.
Barney’s Version is that rare thing, a grown-up comedy – and in a sense, the anti-Seth Rogen. It might just appeal to the King’s Speech audience too, who want something a bit different. And in the end, despite the crisp Jewish humour, the numerous funny lines given to Hoffman, the high comedy wedding set pieces, and Barney’s default mode of jokey self-deprecation, this is actually a rather poignant meditation on friendship, family, ageing, death and love.
Running time: 132 minutes
Released: January 28th 2011
Director: Richard J Lewis
Producer: Robert Lantos
Screenplay: Michael Konyves (based on the novel by Mordecai Richler)
Music: Pasquale Catalano
Barney Panofsky: Paul Giamatti
Izzy Panofsky: Dustin Hoffman
Miriam: Rosamund Pike
Second Mrs P: Minnie Driver
Clara: Rachelle Lefevre
Boogie: Scott Speedman