Starring: Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and Jake Hoffman Links
Distributor: Hopscotch Films
Runtime: 132 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
We all have our own versions of our lives, whether they be accurate or not. Those who have shared our lives with us, or those who have been influenced by us, will have their versions, possibly, even probably, quite different.
Montreal Jewish novelist, Mordechai Richler, chronicled stories of his home city in novels, stories and essays. He was not always a benign critic. Barney’s Version came later in his career, many noting the autobiographical connections. Film versions of his novels include Ted Kotcheff’s fine The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) with Richard Dreyfuss and Joshua Then and Now (1985) with James Woods. Barney’s Version stars Paul Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe award for his performance.
The place is Montreal, with some excursions to New York City. The time settings go back to the 1970s and move through the ensuing decades.
However, Barney’s Version is not a straightforward, linear narrative. The audience is invited to share Barney’s memories, the memories of an older, sardonic, gruff and blunt, disappointed, alcoholic man who may not be able to hold on to his memories for much longer. Giamatti shows his ability, first of all in making an on-paper unpleasant character interesting to watch, and, secondly, in portraying the changes that the decades and his experiences make on Barney.
A major focal point for the storytelling is Barney’s marital experiences, illustrating the kind of person he was at particular stages of his life. While we are introduced to him as a curmudgeonly older man, stuck in his TV work (a serial that has gone on for years), pestering his ex-wife’s husband, cared for by his daughter, we are taken back to his rather more carefree days in Rome, a kind of bohemian life with artistic friends and a sudden marriage to a pregnant girlfriend (Rachel Lefevre) which does not last long. We are also introduced to his best friend, a frequently drug-sodden writer, Boogie, (Scott Speedman) – and are puzzled by the arrival (in the present) of an aggressive detective (Mark Addy) who has written a book accusing Barney of the murder of his friend. Enough questions and enigmas to keep us wondering.
Barney’s second marriage is to a dominating ‘Jewish Princes’, played with presumptuous verve by Minnie Driver. She has one of the most disapproving fathers in movies. His disdain of Barney in so many scenes is very entertaining in a morose kind of way. But, at the wedding, Barney glimpses Miriam (Rosamund Pike), falls in love and continues over time to pursue and hound her. Eventually, they do marry and spend years together. And, even more eventually, Barney ruins things. Rosamund Pike is a standout in the film. She portrays Miriam with sensitivity and charm, making the audience appreciate how Barney can be infatuated by her, love her, marry her and remain married to her for years. She is a good and patient woman.
But, the actor playing Barney’s father, a rather outgoing, randy former policeman not noted for tact, is Dustin Hoffman – a solid reminder of what a scene-stealer he can be. (It is not only older actresses who play mothers on screen, now it is older actors who play fathers, Hoffman and Jack Nicholson in How Do You Know.)
This is a Canadian production and three prominent directors have cameos: Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg as directors of the series and Ted Kotcheff as a train conductor. Bruce Greenwood is the producer who later marries Miriam and Jake Hoffman (Dustin Hoffman’s son) plays Barney’s son.
The film is over two hours long and not all audiences will be enthralled by meeting Barney and becoming involved in his life. But, for those who do, the story is intriguing, the ending moves towards a pathos we were not anticipating, the performances are of top quality. It is a portrait of a flawed (very) human being, warts and all – but, ultimately, not irredeemable.
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