Barney’s Version ***
Directed by: Richard J. Lewis.
Written By: Michael Konyves based on the novel by Mordecai Richler.
Starring: Paul Giamatti (Barney Panofsky), Rosamund Pike (Miriam), Dustin Hoffman (Izzy),
Minnie Driver (Mrs. Panofsky), Scott Speedman (Boogie), Bruce Greenwood (Blair), Rachelle Lefevre (Clara), Mark Addy (Detective O'Hearne), Saul Rubinek (Charnofsky).
Mordecai Richler was one of the most beloved of all Canadian authors. His The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was an hilarious and insightful look at a teenage Jew in Montreal and his quest to own land. It was made into a very good movie in the 1974. Barney’s Version also takes place in the Jewish community in Montreal - but spans many more years - from 1974 to 2010. It centers on Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) and his three marriages. The first ends with the suicide of his wife, the second ends in divorce, which may have led to murder. But his third marriage - to Miriam (Rosamund Pike) is the one that shapes Barney’s life the most. She is the love of his life, but Barney is so self involved, to a certain extent no one can be the love of his life - he is too in love with himself.
The heart of movie is Paul Giamatti and his wonderful performance as Barney. We first meet him lounging around Rome with his friends, and his pregnant girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre) who delights in insulting him. Things do not work out with the baby, and soon after their marriage, it is over. He comes back to Montreal, and starts his career as a TV producer of a horrible looking soap opera (that stars Paul Gross, being a good sport as he plays a Mounties, a reference to his show Due North). It is here that he meets the daughter of a rich man (Minnie Driver) and ends up married again. But at his wedding, he first sees Miriam and falls in love immediately. She pursues her mercilessly, but she refuses any contact because he is married - but he won’t be married for long. Eventually, he will have the woman he loves - and this time the marriage lasts, children are born, and it looks like Barney will be happy. But as with everything in his life, Barney will screw it up.
The film is enjoying and involving throughout. It is amazing that no matter how selfish Barney gets, no matter how unsympathetic his actions, we never stop liking him. We can’t help it. He isn’t exactly charming, but he does a certain charm about him - he wears us down. It helps that Giamatti is so good in his role, and he has a great supporting cast. Best of them all is Dustin Hoffman as his vulgar father, who much like Barney, has a gruff charm about him. Minnie Driver is also quite good as his extremely annoying second wife.
The problem with the film - what keeps it from being a great film - is that we never really know why Miriam loves Barney so much. As soon as he is divorced, they seem to fall into each others arms, and then the movie flashes ahead 20 years to when their marriage starts to have problems. What was it about him that she fell in love with - and why does she stick it out with him? It is a whole in the film. Pike is quite good as Miriam - it is easy to see why he loves her so much, so this helps a little bit, but it remains a hole that the movie does not fill.
Yet overall, Barney’s Version is an extremely enjoyable film - well written, well directed and extremely well acted. If it isn’t one of the best movies of the year, it is at least one of the best Canadian films of the year - painting a portrait of a community that we don’t see much in Canadian films. It is a worthy adaptation of one of our greatest author’s best books.