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Barney’s Version Review


RATING:
(3 STARS)

Barney’s Version is probably one of the most problematic films you’ll ever see me fully recommend. Narratively, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s a biopic about a fictional man, which allows it to essentially do whatever it wants (within the framework, of course, of the novel upon which it’s based). Screenwriter Michael Konyves and director Richard J. Lewis take that as license to go wild, covering issues of sacrifice, loneliness, unrequited love, and old age—with a possible murder thrown in for good measure. Yet, despite these drastic shifts in tone and meaning, it still feels somewhat focused. It never loses sight of just whose story this is, thanks primarily to a sensational leading performance by Paul Giamatti. So while it might not be the most polished film of 2010, there’s no denying Barney’s Version is a captivating piece of filmmaking.

We first meet Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) as an older man, full of regret. He’s bitter about losing his wife to another man, and though his children still care for him, he doesn’t have much going for him. Even his successful career as a television executive is getting old for him, and things don’t get much better when he gets a copy of a book written about an unsolved murder case for which he was the prime suspect.

We then flashback with Barney to 1970s Rome, where he’s significantly happier. He’s about to get married to Claire (Rachel Lefevre), who is pregnant with his first child. And he’s closer to his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) than ever before. Things change quickly for Barney, however, and when Claire gives birth to a still born child (who turns out not even to be his), he decides to go to Canada to work. There, he marries again (to a woman played by Minnie Driver), but at his wedding, he spots a woman named Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he thinks is the most spectacular woman he’s ever met. He pursues her, while his wife grows more and more annoying. And all of his problems come to a head one day in the country, when he decides to go after Miriam, and his wife decides to use a strung out Boogie to get some revenge.

The beginning of Barney’s Version is misleading. Not the introductory scene—that’s a perfect way to show us what an asshole Barney is. But the emphasis on the murder in the film’s opening minutes makes us believe this will be about the mystery. It’s not; Rather, it’s about a man and all of his imperfections. Barney is a mess—he’s angry, mean-spirited, an alcoholic, and a terrible husband (times three). But we often see where he’s coming from, and for every misstep he makes in his life, we’re shown or told about something kind he privately did for someone in his life. He’s a very complicated individual, one of the most electric and fascinating in recent memory.

The number one reason we’re so captivated by Barney and his disjointed life story is because Paul Giamatti plays him so brilliantly. Typically a supporting player, he takes this opportunity to shine and runs with it—all the way to a Golden Globe win. He’s equal parts fierce and defeated. And though we’re given a thousand reasons to hate the character, Giamatti plays him in a strangely likeable way.

The supporting cast is also quite excellent. Dustin Hoffman has the juiciest role as Barney’s father. He’s not as vital a character to the film as others, but he’s quite funny and gets some great moments teaching his son about life. Rosamund Pike is better than she’s ever been before as Miriam, the true love of Barney’s life. She’s much better than him in every way, but she truly loves him and remains faithful to him until the end.

Barney’s Version was sort of written off late this year, I think, because there were just too many smaller films competing for attention. It’s not the best of that bunch (Rabbit Hole and Biutiful were, for my money, the best), but it’s an admittedly imperfect film that deserved more love than it received, especially when it came to Giamatti’s masterful work.

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