Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver
We went to see 'Barney's Version', without any expectations other than we knew that it was based on a novel by the late Mordechai Richler. We had not been seduced by any splashy publicity and were frankly unprepared for the impact it would have on us when, for the next two hours, we were held captive by this remarkable piece of cinematic theatre.
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The acting is superb, from the first frame to the last. Paul Giametti is Barney Panofsky. He is magnificent as the rumpled, paunchy and balding loser who has destroyed all his personal relationships. But, he has succeeded, reluctantly one feels, in producing ghastly television dramas and soap operas for his company, 'Totally Unnecessary Productions'. His story is told in flashbacks which move easily and seamlessly from past to present. Dustin Hoffman who plays Barney's father, a Montreal policeman, turns in a bravura performance. He lights up the screen with wry comedic brilliance and manages to steal every scene.
Barney's son is played by Jake Hoffman. I was bothered throughout the movie by how much this actor looked like a young Dustin Hoffman. Well, in real life he is Dustin Hoffmans's son. Memories of early Hoffman triumphs are evoked by the younger man.
The film opens with Barney, drunk and maudlin at 2am in the morning, telephoning someone called Blair and demanding to speak to his wife. You can hear a man saying, 'she is not your wife' whereupon Barney offers him nude pictures of her so that 'he could see what she looked like in her prime.' He is talking about Miriam, the only true love of his life. This sad wreck of a man is probably one of the most unlikely leading men.
Barney relives his sad and mismanaged life in a series of flashbacks. At once he is in Rome with his first wife whom he married because she was pregnant. She is a kooky free-spirit enchantingly played by Rachelle Lefevre. Quite absentmindedly she commits suicide, and we see Barney back in Montreal and about to marry the 2nd Mrs Panofsky, who incidentally is never named. Minnie Driver's hilarious cameo of this pampered suburban American princess is a highlight of the film. This union is even more doomed than the first. In the middle of the wedding reception, Barney falls in love at first sight with the luminous and elegant Miriam, beautifully and sympathetically played by Rosamund Pike.
Other strands weave in and out of this tapestry of despair and failure. His relationship with his father is vital to the story. His wedding present to his son, when he marries the Minnie Driver character, is a gun. There is always the sinister shadow of that gun and somehow one feels a little uneasy because of it. Also woven into the story is the interlude in Rome with his friend, Boogie, played by Scott Speedman, who somehow dies in a shooting. We are not enlightened about this incident till the very end. A vicious anti-Semitic detective, played by Mark Addy, is convinced that Barney has gotten away with murder and remains an evil shadow. But an even more troubling and despairing strand is the fact that Barney is displaying the early symptoms of Alzheimers disease.
This film is terribly funny, romantic and tragic. A crucible of emotions, but also endearing and tender. Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman provide moments of unutterable sweetness as do his scenes with Miriam. It is easy to love this anti-hero. We sympathise with his failures and forgive him his indiscretions. After all, it is Barney's Version.