Movie Review: Barney's Version
The Charlotte Observer
An overweight, overbearing man marries for money and meets a beautiful, intelligent woman at his wedding reception. He asks her to run away with him, drunkenly pursues her onto the train she's taking from Montreal to New York, and has to be ordered to leave. He sends her gifts and flowers, despite her repeated demands that he let her alone. When he finally divorces this wife - his second - he talks the New Yorker into a dinner on her turf. He arrives half-drunk, then spends the bulk of the evening vomiting and sleeping off his intoxication.
She's turned on like you wouldn't believe.
Or maybe you would believe. I didn't, so the title character of "Barney's Version" left me wishing someone would give this unrelenting boor a boa constrictor for a necktie.
Paul Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Barney Panofsky, does everything he can to play against the character's ugly actions. His pleading eyes suggest layers of emotional need, and his heartfelt protestations of love make Barney seem less like an obsessive stalker and more like a dreamy romantic whose bitterness stems from the collapse of his impossible fantasies.
Yet Barney begins the film as a 30-year-old in Italy in search of hash and whores. By his early 60s, he spends evenings harassing the new husband of ex-wife No.3 and moping over his loneliness, which he has earned with a lifetime of meanness and infidelity. (On the first night his third wife is away visiting his son, he has sex with a woman who had a small role on the TV soap opera he produces.)
Director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves, who adapted a novel by Mordecai Richler, set out to make a "picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect, fully lived life of the impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt Barney Panofsky." (This comes from the film's publicity.)
If we translate "politically incorrect" as "sexist," "impulsive" as "selfish," and "fearlessly blunt" as "rude, usually with booze in hand," perhaps they did so. "Irascible" can stand as it is, but "fully-lived" seems a misnomer: Even Barney, looking back, realizes how full his days have been of missed opportunities and failures to address important issues.
The filmmakers try to make us sympathize with Barney by surrounding him with even more annoying types: a cruel, suicidal first wife (Rachelle Lefevre), a shrewish second one (Minnie Driver, good in a thankless part), a supposed pal who sleeps with one of the wives (Clé Bennett) and a heroin-addicted novelist who mooches off Barney for years before disowning him (Scott Speedman).
A thuggish cop (Mark Addy) wrongly suspects Barney of murder, so he beats and harasses him. Barney's crude dad (effervescent Dustin Hoffman) doesn't understand him. Finally, in case Barney isn't winning the Pity Sweepstakes, he gets a terrible disease - just about the time his good deeds done in secret come belatedly to light.
The actors make this narrative watchable in scene after scene. Wry, soft-spoken Rosamund Pike is especially winning as wife No. 3, who tolerates decades of Barney's eccentricities and bad behavior because she sees the warm heart beating in his chubby breast. (I wish I had.)
The makeup is also especially fine. I mention this because the film is nominated for an Oscar, opposite "The Way Back" and "The Werewolf." I doubt it'll win: People vote for movies where characters become literal monsters, not figurative ones.
Yet the physical transformation of these actors over 36 years was accomplished with extraordinary care and a perfect eye for telling details. I wish everyone working on the picture were able to say the same, but subtlety was too rarely the order of the day on "Barney's Version."