Thursday, February 17, 2011

Barney's Version: Larger than life

Barney's Version (2010) • View trailer for Barney's Version
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang 

At first blush, Barney’s Version walks and talks like a picaresque comedy about a rash, self-centered, hedonistic schlub played to humorous perfection by Paul Giamatti: a 21st century Tom Jones with a somewhat more irascible protagonist.

Great chunks of the first and second act are hilarious, fueled by Giamatti’s priceless slow burns and double-takes. (Honestly, film classes could be constructed around Giamatti’s depth of expression, starting with his narrow-eyed squints of suspicion. One gets the impression he could read the phone book and make it mesmerizing.)
Although the freshly minted groom at his own wedding, Barney (Paul Giamatti)
can't take his eyes off Miriam (Rosamund Pike), one of the guests, after spotting
her across the room. Newly married or not, Barney is about to embark on a
relentless crusade to woo this other woman, who can't quite figure out what
to make of him.

It’s also rather difficult, early on, to like Giamatti’s Barney Panofsky. He’s not exactly cruel, but he’s certainly thoughtless and prone to frequent sins of omission: the sort of guy who’d hover near a concealed TV set on his wedding day, in order to follow a hockey game. We grow ever more exasperated by Barney’s behavior, even as we laugh at his sometimes outrageous shortcomings.

Then ... an odd thing happens.

Suddenly, we’re not laughing any more. Just as suddenly, we feel sorry – profoundly sorry – for this fellow we’ve gotten to understand so well. And that’s a further surprise; director Richard J. Lewis and scripters Michael Konyves and Mordecai Richler – the latter adapting his novel of the same title – sneakily fashion a narrative which, despite its episodic nature, ultimately paints a portrait of a complete person. By the end of this film, we feel like we’ve known Barney for years.

Additionally, due both to final-act revelations and a better appreciation for little things along the way, we realize that Barney – for all his weaknesses and failings – always has been capable of acts of surprising generosity, and kindness of spirit.

Such a tightrope act – in terms of winning and keeping our empathy to such a character – requires extraordinarily precise acting; one false step, and we’d never surmount the resulting disgust and loathing. But Giamatti pulls it off, unerringly, much the way Michael Douglas held our grudging, head-shaking admiration as the misanthropic Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys.

On a superficial level, Barney’s Version is a riff on The Heartbreak Kid, in that poor Barney meets the love of his life on his wedding day ... and it ain’t his wife. But this actually comes a bit later in the narrative, after we’ve gotten to know Barney a bit.

We meet our protagonist in the present day, in the act of hassling his ex-wife’s new husband over the phone: not a terribly sympathetic start. Barney’s professional life, while successful, is somewhat soulless; as the head of a television company he has self-deprecatingly dubbed Totally Unnecessary Productions, he has overseen a wildly successful three-decade soap opera that has generated pots of money. But there’s no such thing as enough prestige in Barney’s world; as a product of Montreal’s predominantly Jewish, working-class Mile End region, he’s stuck with the nagging belief that he needs to “trade up” in every aspect of his life.

Barney is, it should be mentioned, a quintessential Richler protagonist: a bawdy, buffoonish, Falstaffian character very much like the central figures in the famed Canadian author’s other books, notably The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Joshua Then and Now. In tone and depth of narrative, Richler can be regarded as a Canadian cousin of John Irving; both authors employ farce and exaggeration in the construction of their hapless heroes, and the situations that befall them.

Barney’s epiphany, on this average morning, comes with the publication of a tell-all book by a disgruntled cop (Mark Addy) who believes that our hero, years earlier, got away with murder. The only problem, and the one thing that has kept Barney out of prison: No body ever was found.

Now, there's an eyebrow-lifter, dumped into these proceedings when the film is barely 10 minutes old. And so, confronted with a few scandalous newspaper headlines, Barney retreats into his thoughts and remembers his earlier life – his “version” of these events – and what brought him to this particular juncture: a wild ’n’ wooly three-act saga that centers around three very different women.

(Adrien Morot, it must be mentioned, garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for the make-up effects that quite persuasively help these actors span three-plus decades.)

Things begin in Rome, in 1974, as a callow Barney enjoys la vie de boheme with best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), a writer too easily distracted by various mind-altering substances, and two other mutual buddies. Barney also is attached to the flagrantly free-spirited Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who is pregnant with his child; he therefore does the honorable thing and marries her ... despite her screamingly obvious flaws. Nor are Barney’s motives entirely altruistic; by his twisted view of life – because, as a painter (albeit a poor one), she’s “artistic” – he regards her as a necessary “step up.”

We can’t be too surprised when this union proves disastrous, although the speed with which it goes south is both breathtaking and indicative of the roller coaster of emotional fury that is typical of a Richler saga.

Time passes.

Barney heals, begins the professional climb soon to make him a prosperous man. This process gets a healthy bump when he meets the woman destined to become the “second Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver): a Jewish American princess of snootily wealthy parents who never, ever stops talking, and flings acid-tongued put-downs with the alacrity of a Borscht Belt comic. As an act of gleefully wicked malice on the writers’ part, we never learn her name.

And, literally on his wedding day, Barney spots Miriam (Rosamund Pike) among the guests ... and his life changes forever.

Subsequent escapades and misadventures gradually reveal additional facets of Barney’s personality, along with occasional visits back to the present day: interludes that introduce a grown son, Michael (Jake Hoffman), and daughter, Kate (Anna Hopkins, poignantly warm and gentle). Despite the often comical distractions, we can’t help remembering the mystery at the heart of this story, and wondering: Whose body, precisely, has never been found? And under what circumstances?

Answers do come, eventually, but they’re not really the point.

Barney’s Version is a character study told via relationships: happy and sad, successful and not. The core dynamic – the one unerringly strong bond in Barney’s life – is with his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a retired cop whose career, we’re led to believe, may have included occasional ethical lapses. Although just as politically incorrect as his son, Izzy has the experience of age when it comes to dealing with people; the dinner party where he meets the soon-to-be Second Mrs. P’s parents is fall-down hilarious. Hoffman is in marvelous form: a master of the impeccably timed – and slyly subtle – dig.

More to the point, Barney and Izzy are each other’s rocks. Just shy of blind drunk at his own wedding – having blown off his bride to track that hockey game; having subsequently been distracted by Miriam’s presence, at one edge of the crowd – Barney nonetheless extracts an unexpected degree of dignity and righteous fury while demanding that his new father-in-law mind his place, when it comes to Izzy.

“That man is my father,” Barney snarls, “and you will treat him with respect.”

Giamatti puts such love into this declaration – such depth of feeling – that we can’t help adoring him. Despite everything else.

Such moments become more frequent, as the narrative continues, and as we glimpse ever further beneath Barney’s prickly and deeply flawed exterior. Having reached the end of this film – and keep the Kleenex handy, because the depth of poignance is both powerful and unexpected – we look back and realize how many scenes are informed by Giamatti’s expressions: exasperation, love, lust, contempt, kindness. However ill-advised and badly timed his many actions, this is a man who throws himself into life, hoping – if necessary – to pick up the pieces later. He makes no apologies, and damned if we don’t grow to admire him, warts and all.

Driver is pitch-perfect as a high-tone bee-yatch who can elicit shivers with the contemptuous point of an accusing index finger. (She also takes a hilariously, ah, hygienic approach to her “wifely duties.”)

Pike, an actress of ever-increasing versatility – she also is a key element of the recently released Made in Dagenham – is this saga’s anchor of calm and “normality.” Although an iconic figure in Barney’s eyes, Miriam is no one-dimensional figure on a pedestal. Pike makes her warm, graceful, intelligent, witty and just impulsive enough to be intrigued by the attention Miriam gets from this disheveled, boorish teddy bear of a man. Driver and Lefevre play somewhat exaggerated negative female archetypes – although they, too, deserve our sympathy at times – but Pike is firmly grounded. She is the woman of every man’s dreams, in all the best ways.

Giamatti won a well-deserved Golden Globe for this performance: a triumph that came as a surprise to mainstream movie fans who hadn’t even heard of this film until then. Rest assured, the accolade is well deserved; Barney Panofsky is a character for the ages, and Giamatti brings him to memorable life.

That said, I don’t think I’d want him marrying my daughter...

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