Movie Review: Barney's Version (2011)
We first see the film’s protagonist, Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), 65, waking beside empty whiskey bottles and spent cigars, and groaning. He phones a man named Blair (Bruce Greenwood), asks to speak to “my wife,” then promises nude photos of said wife so Blair “can see what Miriam looked like in her prime.” Later that day, when his grown daughter informs him that Blair had a heart attack that morning, Barney is unsympathetic. “Putz,” he says. That evening he goes to a bar to drink and watch the hockey game. But at the bar sits an old enemy, a retired Irish cop, O’Hearne (Mark Addy), who has written a book accusing Barney of a long-ago murder. “Now the whole world is going to know what a cocksucking murderer you are,” O’Hearne says two inches from Barney’s face. “You could use a mint,” Barney replies with surgical precision.
Fun! We seem to be promised the story of a tough, foulmouthed Jew.
Unfortunately, we don’t see that guy much. For most of the movie, which includes long flashbacks of a ramshackle life, Barney is a bit of a putz himself.
In the late ’60s and early ‘70s, Barney hangs in Italy with friends, including Boogie (Scott Speedman), a handsome, talented, would-be novelist. There’s wine and beautiful Italian women (for Boogie anyway), but Barney, against Boogie’s advice, gets married to Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a brassy, insulting woman who is pregnant with his child. He does the right thing even though she makes jokes about his three-inch penis. When she gives birth, and the baby is black, she tells him, from her hospital bed, “Oh Barney, you really do wear your heart on your sleeve. Now put it away—it looks disgusting.” When he leaves her for good, she kills herself. Guilt laps up on him.
Cut to: Montreal,1975, where Barney is running Totally Unnecessary Productions, which produces a long-running Canadian soap opera. He’s also about to get married again to a Jewish hottie (Minnie Driver) whose her father doesn’t approve of him, and approves even less of Barney’s father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a former beat cop.
Can I pause for a moment to say how much I love Dustin Hoffman? I don’t know if he lights up the screen but he lights up me. He shows up and I beam.
He seems to be playing more overtly Jewish these days. Here, at a dinner gathering with the rich family of Barney’s fiancée, he’s all smiles and good will and blunt charm. He says to Barney’s fiancée, “You are one sweet casserole,” and encourages them to “get to schtupping.” The father of the bride doesn’t think much of this working class man, and says something vaguely and unnecessarily insulting, which he doesn’t think Izzy will understand. But Izzy gives him a look. It’s a look I’ve seen Dustin give in other movies. It’s as if both injury and civility are competing for control of his face. It’s a look that says: “I am smart enough to recognize your insult, I am sensitive enough to be injured by your insult, but I am strong enough to look you in the face and civil enough to keep smiling.” It’s the most human of faces. It’s why Dusty is my guy. Long may he act.
At Barney’s wedding, between attempts to get sloshed and watch the Stanley Cup finals (Montreal vs. Boston), Barney sees a woman named Miriam (Rosamund Pike of “An Education”), a friend of a friend, and immediately falls in love. Yes, at his own wedding. He’s not abashed about it, either. He sits across from her, and while she tries to dampen his joy, he smiles a beatific smile. “It really happens,” he says, shaking his head. “Just like that. It’s amazing.”
He follows her onto her train bound for New York, but he’s walletless and ticketless, and married, as she reminds him, so off he goes on his honeymoon to the wrong woman, a woman who, in marriage, between shopping sprees, complains about his friends and cigars and drinking.
The movie handles all this well, by the way. It doesn’t quite stack the deck against her. She’s a pain but sympathetic. He’s charming but an asshole.
Meanwhile, his old friend Boogie, who has written exactly nothing, has become a drug addict, and Barney takes him to his cabin for a weekend of drying out. Instead, Boogie fucks his wife. When Barney finds the two of them together he is 1) shocked, and 2) overwhelmed with joy. He knows it’s his way out.
She blames her infidelity on Barney, of course, while Boogie uses an old line of Barney’s from Italy to justify the peccadillo: “It was the only thing that’d shut her up.” The two old friends then drink, Izzy’s gun is found, and out on the dock, with wildfires in the distance, the gun goes off. When Barney wakes, Boogie isn’t there. The murder he’s accused of committing in the first act goes off in the second.
But the disappearance of Boogie is soon forgotten in lieu of wooing Miriam. They have a disastrous first date in New York—he drinks too much, throws up, passes out—but she’s charmed anyway. They date, get married, have kids, have a life. His father dies, he becomes jealous of a neighbor, Blair, a vegan who’s good with boats and helps Miriam with her radio career, something Barney doesn’t do, and Miriam soon wearies of this, and of Barney’s hockey games and drinking. She leaves him for a week to visit their college-age son in New York and to give themselves some breathing space. Of course, despondent, he sleeps with another woman. Of course she finds out.
“We have life, we have a life,” he pleads.
“We had a life,” she responds.
I never cared for her, to be honest. All Barney’s wives were demanding but she was demanding and removed, not a combination that works for me. He sees something in her, which is why he pursues her, but what does she see in him? A reflection of her ideal self? A woman so dazzling she is pursued by the groom at another woman’s wedding? She acts like she has all the answers, but all her answers are stored inside an icebox that is rarely opened.
“Barney’s Version” is based upon the novel by Mordecai Richler, who also wrote the novel that became “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” and I imagine it sprawling like John Irving’s “The World According to Garp,” which made a great novel but a so-so movie. Same here. The ramshackle life doesn’t quite cohere. The resolution to the Boogie disappearance doesn’t quite resonate, either. We find out, go “Ah,” but that’s about it. The movie does make me want to read Richler, though. A good writer can whip up resonance with words. Filmmakers, poor bastards, are left with just the world.