Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Barney's Version

Scott Speedman as Boogie, Giamatti and Rachelle Lefevre as Clara
Barney's Version (Canada, 2010) directed by Richard J. Lewis, 132 minutes @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Nominated for 1 Oscar:
Best Make-up

The crowd I saw this film with at @ TIFF Lightbox 1 last September seemed suitably wowed, two viewers both claiming it to be a masterpiece at the Q&A following the film. Hmmm.

No doubt they are Paul Giamatti fans. Alas, I am not. His allure alludes me. However, I am a fan of the writer Mordecai Richler so I was intrigued by how this long awaited film would play. The producer Robert Lantos, whom I like a great deal, spoke after the film with the screenwriter and director, and said that he had searched for many years for Barney and when he saw the award winning film Sideways with Paul Giamatti as the lead said, "Hello Barney!" He felt he knew he had the right actor.

Lantos waited for numerous rewrites to get the right tone (he largely succeeds I think); hence, the film was years in preparation. I find Lantos' arrogance refreshingly un-Canadian and invigorating. He admitted that he questioned whether the screenwriter Michael Konyves (who is quite young) could possibly capture the tone he wanted. But he said something to the effect that he would only pay the kid slave wages so what did he have to lose?

My image of Richler's doppelganger Barney Panofsky is much like my image of Richler: sexy, funny, witty, a little crude, schlubby. Giamatti does not fit the bill for me. Not sexy, not funny, not witty, and okay...I'll concede Giamatti is schlubby.

We desperately want our Canadian classics (I want that too). The book may be a classic but the film, in my opinion, is not destined to be one. I won't go over the minutiae of the book or film in great detail as I am guessing most people interested in the review of this film will remember most of the plot. 

I will concede that I am faced with an enormous psychological impediment that is no fault of the director or producer. I find it difficult to watch a film set in the 70s as this one partially is - the hideousness and general physical shabbiness of the era have always turned me off. I find the fidelity to 70s costumes, hair and makeup and scenery incredibly distracting on screen. Giamatti's rug in the early scenes of his relative youth in Rome coupled with his eye popping overacting are particularly off putting. Barney, to my mind, is profane and vulgar and smart but he is not goofy or physically unappealing. 

Barney’s Version follows Barney Panofsky through his various marital travails guided by his father Izzy Panofsky (played by a believable and relatively low key Dustin Hoffman), a former cop with an indiscreet manner and a huge heart full of paternal love. Wife number one, Clara (the ravishing Rachelle Lefevre also known for her role as the vituperative vampire Victoria in the Twilight series), whom Barney meets in Rome, is promiscuous, unstable but beautiful. It ends badly and Barney returns to his hometown Montreal to nurse his wounds.

He becomes a successful television producer with his own company called Totally Unnecessary Productions and reluctantly acquires a high society Jewish princess (played very well by Minnie Driver) with whom he has absolutely nothing in common. He also acquires a set of unpleasant in-laws who despise him for his lower status. Driver is vulgar and selfish and completely unsuitable for the irascible Barney. This too ends in tears.

Fortuitously, at his second wedding, Barney meets and falls deeply in love with Miriam (Rosamund Pike) whom he relentlessly pursues until she becomes wife number three before the ink is literally dry on his divorce papers. Disappointingly, Pike is so passive in her role and so underused. I remember her in other films as being quite animated, lively and intelligent (is it because she has to play "older"?) but here her spark is smothered by a false sense of decorum or perhaps it was a desire to emulate Richler's wife Florence Richler whom I read she had met with prior to the shooting of the film.

Some fine acting highlights: Scott Speedman as the sexy, irresponsible Boogie, Barney's best friend whose mysterious disappearance Barney holds some responsibility for. Rachelle Lefevre hits the right notes of bitchy self-regard, sleazy hippie glamour and Jewish insecurity; Bruce Greenwood is appealing as the gentle suitor who vies for Miriam's affections.

I did love the various and plentiful cameos: the director Denys Arcand as a very proper waiter at a fancy restaurant; directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan as hack television directors; Paul Gross as the leading man in the popular "O'Malley of the North" TV series that Barney produces; Saul Rubinek as Clara's bitter-minded orthodox Jewish father. 

But masterpiece, shmasterpiece. I just wanted a good laugh.


Anonymous said...

I hate to be one of those "the movie couldn't hold a candle to the book" types, but that's the best way to describe this one. The book is narrated by the aged and mentally faltering Barney, and much of its charm is in the fact that the reader cannot fully trust the "version" being recounted by a narrator who is suffering from dementia. The movie doesn't even try to capture that same ambiguity. Also, the movie Barney is not nearly unlikeable enough. At times, he even seems like a sweet guy, which the book Barney never was. In the movie, Barney's father is the character that we wanted Barney to be. Odd, quirky, impulsive, and not giving a shit what anybody else thinks. I give this one a thumbs down.

Michelle said...

I will only leave this erudite comment: yup.