Please note: one or two mild spoilers are in this review, in case you’ve not heard them already. If you haven’t, you might want to steer clear until you’ve seen the film.
Paul Giamatti, actor par excellence, isn’t really one to shy away from difficult to play characters, or roles that embody the less pleasant side of human nature, and so it is with Barney Panofsky, Jewish Canadian TV producer and seeming all-round asshole.
Essentially a re-evaluation of a life lived to the full after a tell-all memoir accuses him of murder, Barney’s Version unravels the confusion of a lifetime of memories to reveal the truth about the death of his best friend, along with the well buried innate goodness of its central character.
Told through a series of flashbacks, the story encompasses some 40 years of Barney’s life, beginning in the present, with him as a middle-aged divorcee, and taking in Rome in the 60s, hippies and crazy first wife included, the biggest Jewish wedding you’ve ever seen, crazy second wife included, and the possibility that he is responsible for the death of his best friend, and everything in between.
Based on the award-winning book of the same name by the late Mordecai Richler, it’s clear that the source material was incredibly rich. Drawing from four decades’ worth of material allows scriptwriter Michael Konyves to show a depth of character that is likely, in large part, thanks to its original incarnation. Whatever the reason, the script is pitch perfect.
Barney and all of the main characters are realistic, follow a believable progression, and rarely, if ever, depart from the authenticity of the universe they inhabit. Miriam, the love of Barney’s life, beautifully played by Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, The Libertine), whom Barney meets at his own wedding reception, is, without doubt, the best example of that. Her initial reluctance, their subsequent marriage, and inevitable separation span the majority of the story. Beautifully handled, believable and often saddening, Pike’s portrayal is an outstanding piece of work.
This, however, is a movie full of fantastic performances. Barney’s graceless, ex-cop father, Izzy, played with relish by Dustin Hoffman, is one of the richest veins of comedy in the movie. Removing the stick from his ass was the best move Hoffman ever made, and he’s the perfect example of how a dedicated method actor can become a comic genius. Robert De Niro, take note. Hoffman’s death scene, while having very little to do with him, is one of the funniest, most moving scenes in the story, and the loss of his character’s presence echoes through the rest of the movie, so good is he.
The fantastic relationship between him and Barney is at the heart of the film, and the pair exhibits real warmth when sharing the screen. It’s an unusual take on a father/son relationship, at least in Hollywood, and all the more interesting for it. Izzy’s ‘I am what I am’ attitude is in complete contrast to his son’s constant need to be something more, and yet they complement each other perfectly.
‘The second Mrs P’, Minnie Driver (Grosse Point Blank, An Ideal Husband) appears to have taken a lesson or two from Hoffman on stick removal, and turns in one of the most interesting and funny performances of her career. As the spoiled Jewish princess that Barney essentially marries for money, this could well be Driver’s Tom Cruise/Jerry Maguire moment, and it’s a pleasure to watch her finally give the kind of performance you always wish she had.
Her appearance in the story heralds the start of the darkest chapter in Barney’s life, and the reason for all the reflection. Soon after the wedding, she sleeps with his best friend,Boogie (Scott Speedman), a betrayal he not only witnesses, but is somewhat complicit in.
That same day, the friend disappears after a heated discussion about why it’s just not acceptable to sleep with your best friend’s wife. Barney ends up unconscious and Boogie is never heard from again. Subsequently, under suspicion of murder, the case is never proven, but when a tell-all memoir, written by the lead detective, is published, Barney is finally able to confront the truth about that horrific day, and the guilt he carries because of it.
Sadly, not long after discovering the truth, he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The vital, gruff Barney slowly disappears, and all the people that love him are finally able to get close to a man who was never able to really accept that anyone would want to.
The Alzheimer’s is sensitively handled, with a touch of humour, and provides some of the most moving scenes of the film. Having praised the supporting cast for their amazing performance, you shouldn’t be in any doubt that this is Giamatti’s movie. From the young, energetic Barney through to the debilitated older man, this is a role tailor-made for the man, and showcases his not inconsiderable talents perfectly.
An absorbing, beautifully crafted movie, funny and moving, often at the same time, Barney’s version quietly manages to achieve what so many other movies can’t. It does justice to a great story, and does it effortlessly.
As with everyone, Barney’s life is a chaotic, fantastic and occasionally dramatic mess. Like Paul Giamatti, the movie doesn’t shy away from that. It revels in it. And so will you.
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