REVIEW: Barney’s Version [2010]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 134 minutes | Release Date: December 24th, 2010 (Canada)
Studio: Entertainment One / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Richard J. Lewis
Writer(s): Michael Konyves / Mordecai Richler (novel)

“Montreal 2, Boston 1”

It begins with an aged detective, a man unafraid of police brutality, and his newly released novel about the circumstantial evidence surrounding the disappearance of a young man at the summer home of a friend. Detective O’Hearne (Mark Addy) has never let go of the assumption that Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) shot and killed his Best Man from two weddings, Boogie (Scott Speedman), in a drunken stupor after the discovery of an adulterous tryst. To that end, he has been a constant fixture in the television producer’s life over the past thirty years, sitting just a few seats down the bar at Grumpy’s to rub in the fact his book had been published, the front page article and review in the paper not enough to jab once more into Barney’s side. To the accused, a lonely man appearing tired of work and devoid of any joyful spark, the reminder of his missing friend seems as though it can only drag him down deeper into the depression inhabiting each wrinkle on his brow.

But Barney isn’t like most people—he did meet his third wife at his second wedding, after all—and the recollection of Boogie only triggers the memories of happier times. We are therefore treated to Barney’s Version, a steady stream of visual mementos telling the story behind the man we see before us. Starting in Italy, shortly after getting engaged with the beautiful yet mentally unstable Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), we see a quartet of bohemians post-college and pre-adulthood. Cedric (Clé Bennett) and Leo (Thomas Trabacchi) are amateur artists in the birthplace of the Renaissance and Boogie has a new, unfinished draft of the novel he’ll never finish. Barney has yet to enter the television business, but he does have gainful employ, allowing him to be the only patron at his friends’ show, giving us an idea of his gregarious nature and complete faith in those he loves. He is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve—for better or worse—and can’t help himself when it strays from what’s in front of him for what he desires. His isn’t an easy life, but it is a rewarding one because of those he shares it with.

Directed by Richard J. Lewis and adapted from the Canadian novel by Mordecai Richler, the film takes place in Montreal, its NHL team a continuous point of contention in Barney’s life, distracting him along with alcohol from many of what should be the important parts along his journey through time. Canada is a big part of the film as a whole—favorite sons Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg even lend their time as directors on Barney’s trashy daytime soap opera—because the country is our titular character’s home and a large part of his existence. New York City serves as a distant land threatening to take the ones he loves, a modern land in contrast to his Montreal, the city where his father (Dustin Hoffman) served on the force as a beat cop and where he inevitably will spend eternity. And this story, playing out inside his head, will eventually take us to that end, but not without the twists and turns of brash, impetuous, and somehow affable actions. Three marriages, two divorces, a possible murder, and even a short stint as a widower, Barney’s life is one of excitement, pain, and above all else, unforgettable events.

That latter descriptor, however, comes with a caveat soon to takeover the meaning of the narrative. What’s shown begins to recall the anecdotes told by the elder Panofsky, tales of intrigue and humor, almost assured to possess exaggeration. A revelation, alluded to early on, eventually exposes itself to make us question the validity everything. We find our narrator can no longer be trusted, the brazen confidence exuded could all have been embellished, and our ‘hero’ may in fact have murdered his friend after all. This crime, while a blip in the admittedly long runtime, carries immense weight, the truth of what happened either an unsolved mystery or the key to unlock how much of what we’ve seen is real. Anyone who knows me is aware I often loathe films that try to span a lifetime, but for some reason, having this puzzle lingering in the background makes everything else much more resonate. The simple fact this man can continue to live, love, make a family, and never let go to the hope Boogie will one day return is, in all honesty, what makes Barney’s Version such a beautiful movie.

Through all the tragedy, this man gets back up and continues on, making the best of what he has. Forget the alcoholism; forget the boneheaded maneuverings to find a way to screw up his relationships. Barney is the everyman—full of faults yet in possession of the happiness we all strive to achieve. It is a role Giamatti was born to play, familiar in many ways to previous characters on his resume, but miles apart in its full scope and heartwrenching dénouement. The actors surrounding him reflect their own needs and as a result his failures and successes with them. Two, Speedman and Rosamund Pike, (as the love of Barney’s life, Miriam), give the best performances of their careers, his cautionary tale through a descent into drugs and her unwavering adoration for a man even their kids know can never be good enough proving Barney is more than just an infectious smile. They are the light in his life, ultimately let down by his insecurities and weaknesses. Despite his missteps and errors of judgment, though, the film remains uplifting from frame one. Wherever there is love, there is wealth and therefore Barney is a rich man. Whether the story we watch unfold happened this way or not, that fact is irrefutable.

[1] Left to Right: Paul Giamatti as Barney and Dustin Hoffman as Izzy Photo by Takashi Seida, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Rosamund Pike as Miriam. Photo by ©Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Minnie Driver as 2nd Mrs. P. Photo by Takashi Seida, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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