Take a ride through the life and memories of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, foulmouthed 65-year old hockey fanatic and television producer, as he reflects on his life's successes and (numerous) gaffes and failures as the final chapters of his own existence come sharply into focus.
Published in 1997, Mordechai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version is a life story with a tragically unreliable narrator. The pugnaciously named Barney Panofsky, a Jewish-Canadian television producer, recounts his varied days as he succumbs to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease: he’s trying to get down everything he can remember, but you’re not sure if the gaps in his personal narrative come from avoidance or illness. Some of them are filled in by his son, whose fictional footnotes dot the pages.
Movies, which respond so easily to the sudden breaking and reforming of time, often struggle with the sheer mass of the life tale, be it real or imagined, and the literary structure of Richler’s book would appear to only accentuate that difficulty. Yet Richard J. Lewis’ screen adaptation proves to be solid accompaniment, mainly by finding a way to allow the strength of the performances, notably an irascible, lived-in take on the title role by Paul Giamatti, to carry the story’s load.
Lewis is a workmanlike stylist – he’s directed 44 episodes of the television procedural C.S.I. – but he reveals a feel for character, and how personality can tell us what someone won’t, or can’t, say. The film is full of distinctive, humanly flawed roles, but it’s more interested in how they find ways of getting along and making do rather than exploring conflict. It also excludes important information from Barney’s life, which is depicted in extended flashback from his final years as a thrice divorced curmudgeon, but you get the sense that it’s not because he can’t remember, bur rather that the little flashes of conflict and public notoriety aren’t considered important by the film in the face of how a life is lived day to day, year to year.
The film also has a feel for the bittersweet comic particulars of Jewish culture, particularly in Barney’s second marriage – it comes after the suicide of his separated first wife, in Rome during expatriate years so common to the 1970s – to the woman who simply becomes the second Mrs. P (Minnie Driver). Their conversations before sex, their sheer incompatibility aside from religion, and the fact that Barney falls head over heels in love at the reception with his eventual third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), all serve to make the union a slyly comic tragedy.
With the kind of performance he’s been trying to get at in the dull Meet the Parents’ sequels, Dustin Hoffman plays Barney’s father, retired beat cop Izzy, with a sense of crafty joie de vivre. He’s loud, a touch obnoxious and protective from a distance – a red rag to wealthy in-laws. Part of the strength offered by Giamatti’s performance is that he’s taken in what Hoffman is doing, and like a true son assimilates his character into his own.
Bu the most telling contribution may well come from Scott Speedman, the Canadian actor whose dreamy good looks made him a television star (Felicity) and somewhat ineffectual leading man in movies (Underworld). Here he plays writer Bernard 'Boogie" Moscowitz, one of those joyous souls of the 1970s who doesn’t know when to stop dancing. As Barney’s best friend he’s present from Rome onwards, but Boogie’s itinerant life of pleasure gives way to addiction even as Barney slides into financial worth producing a tacky soap opera. By their last trip together – up to Barney’s summer house for the purposes of Boogie going cold turkey – they’re united more by memory than anything else.
Their needling of each other – Boogie is coming down, but Barney, as is often the case, is drunk – speaks to one of the picture’s recurring question: which of us changed? And, if neither of us did, what’s happened? Boogie’s disappearance from the lakeside cabin makes Barney a public figure after a police detective (Mark Addy), who can’t find a body or a murder weapon, pursues Barney to the point of obsession, eventually writing an accusatory book, but throughout Barney’s Version is more concerned with the why than the who.
The film marches to its own uneven pace, much like Barney’s sudden fits of passion and attention, and it prefers to illuminate his character by how others react to them, not merely his own deeds. The dainty Rosamund Pike has been an English rose, either knowing or blissfully unaware, for several years now, but the way her Miriam accommodates Barney, coaxing his orbit and raising a family with him, is the best indication of his hidden worth. Lewis and Giamatti can’t fill in every pertinent moment from Barney’s adult life, but Pike’s gently firm demeanour – when she’s done with Barney, she’s done with him – fills in a fair proportion of them.
Some of the broader comic moments take place at Barney’s studio (his company is unforgivingly titled Totally Useless Productions), where his show turns out episodes with assembly line regularity. You may notice that the 'hack" television directors calling cut while Barney literally sleeps off a bout with the bottle, are in fact some of Canada’s leading filmmakers. (Yes, that’s David Cronenberg). It’s a nice gag, but it’s also a knowing comment on how lives don’t always turn out for the best and that the turning point can be a miniscule decision or barely thought out turn. The film paints life, Barney Panofsky’s and the rest, as a strange journey, both hopeful and cruel. You don’t know where you’ll end up, but you do know it won’t be where you start out.