True Story of a Wasted Life
Published on January 13th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells0
Director Richard Lewis’s version of Mordecai Richler’s “Barney Version” isn’t necessarily subordinate to the novel. It is, however, a lesser entry in the autobiography genre which includes “Adaptation,” “Deconstructing Harry,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dodsworth” to name a few with novelistic type male leads. Where Lewis trips is the transition into the second and third acts (the energy is reduced exponentially), but stays afloat by the marvelously smart casting of some of the finest character actors in the business.
“Barney’s Version” is the comedy-cum-drama based on the adult life of fictional Barney Panofsky, Jew (Paul Giamatti). Barney’s religious background (nix devotion) has a starring role in the film as it lingers over his goings on like a dusty cloud through Gentile mispronunciations of his last name, to his second wife choice and complementing kin (Minnie Driver playing Jewish with vengeances) and his sloppy conscience of a father (Dustin Hoffman, clad with Yiddish and witticisms). (Not to mention the fervent self-congratulations for the Saul Bellow references.)
We meet television executive Barney at late middle age in a Canadian bar where he is decently, though provocatively, harassed by a retired sheriff who recently published a tell all account of a supposed murder case Barney was involved in and one where he may have, he implies, committed the act against his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). This does little for a mnemonic device but it does trigger a turn back to the 70s where Barney is playing bohemian in Rome – this being the starting part of Barney’s version of himself. Hereafter, we’re delivered a marvelous potpourri of delicious characters Barney interacts with along the way from his first failed marriage in Italy to his second “Mrs. P”; and the messy business on his wedding day, namely meeting his third wife (Rosamund Pike). This last wife, Miriam, takes the bulk of screen attention. It’s where Barney feels finally at home, as if he’d happened upon an animal shelter rescue.
Unfortunately it’s this third (failed) marriage where “Barney’s Version” starts petering out. It’s almost as if the vitriolic pleasure was indeed over and here’s comfortable middle age—hence filmmaking—taking over and we go on auto-pilot. This isn’t to discount Rosamund Pike, who herself has done splendid work in the film and other surrounding features these past couple years (though one worries she may find herself pigeonholed as a Joanna Barnes throwback). Her Miriam does a fine balancing act to Barney and the dynamic is laudable and real. However “these types of films,” these autobiographies have the ages old pressure of not boring the audience who spend every waking scene with the main character. Barney Panofsky is, of course, a pleasant fellow and worth 132 minutes of our time. Nevertheless the humor and clever dialogue, which so enlivened the earlier scenes, is drained and laid out to dry; which I fear could simply have been avoided by Richard Lewis and his screenwriter Michael Konyves if they didn’t indeed seek literalism so methodically.
Above all this we have yet another Giamatti performance to place on the mantel beside his “John Adams,” “Sideways” and “American Splendor” work. There are few actors today whose physical demeanor so clearly conveys their portraiture as well as Giamatti’s. His intensity is Cagney-esque, not fraudulent like many of the famed Method actors. And he takes to Barney Panofsky with grit and warts, accomplishing a stellar performance that allotted the film a Get Out of Jail Free pass as it trucked to tedium in its last half.