Barney’s Version (2010)

10 Jun

Paul Giamatti’s gradual ascension to the upper echelon of indie stardom is due in no small part to his ability to convincingly portray those at the lowest ebb:  from the hubristic filmmaker in ‘Storytelling’ (2001) to the failed writer in ‘Sideways’ (2004), Giamatti has turned in a litany of performances that run the gamut of failure, alienation and regret. Aided in no small part by a physiognomy that was made for tragedy, Giamatti’s normality has ironically become an asset in a business which places a premium on youth, beauty and exoticism.

Prior to embarking on this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves had a less than stellar track record. Lewis has worked on TV since the late ‘80s, directing shows as diverse as ‘Superboy’ and ‘CSI’, while Konyves has a handful of TV movies to his credit. So the fact that they came together to produce a work of such distinction makes ‘Barney’s Version’ an even more tremendous achievement.

As its title implies, ‘Barney’s Version’ is an account of the life of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), told entirely from his perspective. Barney is a sixty-five-year-old producer of ‘totally unnecessary’ TV who becomes the subject of a book by a police detective (Mark Addy), which accuses him of murdering his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). The film flits between time frames, recounting Barney’s three marriages and shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Boogie’s death.

Much like ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002), ‘Barney’s Version’ is a prime example of the unreliable storyteller at work, outlining the inherently subjective nature of biography. One can never be entirely sure if what we are witnessing is the mendacious testimony of a guilty man or an honest appraisal of events; whether these are the people as they really were or how Barney would prefer they are remembered. The memories occur at random, Proustian rushes stirred by external stimuli, using Barney recollecting them as a handy bridging device.

Lewis draws on a number of influences: the freeze frames, musical interludes, photo montages and slow motion bring Scorsese to mind, the kinetic camerawork is reminiscent of Lumet at his dynamic best, and the conversational scenes using New York as a backdrop are straight out of classic Allen. But this is not the kind of directorial karaoke from which certain ‘auteurs’ of renown have made their fortunes. Lewis doesn’t use these stylistic flourishes as crutches, but implements them at appropriate moments. Guy Dufaux’s cinematography creates a distinct ambiance for each temporal shift, Claude Pare’s production design authentically replicates each period depicted, and Konyves’ screenplay is brimming with ribald humour and caustic bòn móts – ‘She subscribes to the Economist but buys Vogue off the stand’ being one of the most memorable.

Giamatti delivers a barnstorming turn as the querulous, vindictive soul who seems out of place in the modern world. He does an outstanding job of lending pathos to this most ambiguous of protagonists; a philanderer and possibly a murderer, mining the insecurities of the autodidact, his hunched, lumbering gait and pinched diction articulating Barney’s woes. Dustin Hoffman is in rare form as Barney’s father, a charming, roguish ex-cop with a darkness and hurt lurking beneath the gregarious surface: it is Hoffman’s best performance since he stole the show in ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997). Giamatti and Hoffman are a joy to watch together; neither trying to upstage the other, both secure and generous enough to accurately chart the father/son dynamic. Barney’s wives are played to perfection by Rochelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike; as his foul-mouthed, free-spirited first wife, garrulous, ambitious second wife and radiant, indulgent third wife respectively.

It would be a mistake to dismiss ‘Barney’s Version’ as a ‘Jewish film’, just as it would be to write off Spike Lee as a maker of ‘black films’: it may take place within a specific milieu, but it deals with a range of concerns that transcend cultural boundaries. ‘Barney’s Version’ is as much about platonic male love as Barney’s romantic travails: his relationship with Boogie is the most lasting and meaningful of his life, and he constantly searches for a woman who understands him on the same level. The film illustrates the futility of revenge, the most heinous form of mutually assured emotional destruction. The twelve years it took to bring ‘Barney’s Version’ to the screen were not wasted: this is a work whose quality will endure, and whose influence will only appreciate over time.

Giamatti, with the Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Barney.

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