Part of what makes Barney’s Version so absorbing is that it’s intentionally told from an unreliable point of view. Much of the last thirty-five years of Barney Panofsky’s life unfold over the course of nearly two and a half hours, and yet there’s a noticeable lack of information. You may be tempted to think (1) that screenwriter Michael Konyves glossed over a few too many details from Mordecai Richler’s novel, or (2) that director Richard J. Lewis and editor Susan Shipton left a few too many scenes on the cutting room floor. Resist that temptation. I cannot explain why, for that would give away the entire last quarter of the film. All I can say is that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for the narrative gaps.
Panofsky, a role that earned Paul Giamatti a Golden Globe for Actor in a musical or comedy (genres that don’t apply here), may be one of the most realistic characters of any recent film. This is because his life, as is the case with everyone’s life, doesn’t work on a story arc, and his personality doesn’t remain consistent. He’s a man of deep flaws; he smokes a few too many cigars, spends a few too many nights drunk, watches a few too many hockey games away from home, can be venomously honest in the heat of anger, and is impulsive with who he falls in love with. But he isn’t without his redeeming qualities; while far from the world’s greatest husband or father, there is genuine love for his children and third wife, who he met and fell in love with the day he married his second wife.
The story shifts back and forth between 1974 and 2010 and reveals a number of events in Barney’s life, most of which don’t connect in any relevant way. We follow him through three failed marriages, the first to a mentally unstable woman in Italy (Rachelle Lefevre), the second to a petty and verbose heir to a family fortune (Minnie Driver), the third to an independent, beautiful, and caring radio personality from New York (Rosamund Pike) – the latter being the only woman he truly loved. We watch as he goes from a struggling artist in Europe to a successful but unhappy television producer in his native Montreal. We see him become a suspect in the disappearance of his best friend (Scott Speedman) and a target of an infuriated detective (Mark Addy), who has written a book about the case. We also see the relationship between Barney and his father (Dustin Hoffman), a vulgar but loveable former cop.
The film treads a path that leads from dark comedy to heartbreaking drama, although there are moments when the two seamlessly come together. A scene later in the film, for example, is a perfect reminder that some people die under the funniest of circumstances. This would not have worked were it not for the actors, who all find the right balance between the funny and the serious. As Barney’s unnamed second wife, Minnie Driver is both hilarious and annoying as the quintessential Jewish Princess. As Barney’s best friend, “Boogie” Moscovitch, Scott Speedman is a bohemian in the worst sense of the word – a grungy cokehead and alcoholic who actually believes the Book of Job can be reworked into a pornographic novel. Hoffman’s take on Barney’s father is nothing short of heartwarming; he may occasionally say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but he loves you, and he’ll always have your back.
The best character, however, is Miriam, Barney’s third wife. She’s sweet, understanding, patient, dignified, and honest – a role defined by both her inner and outer beauty. When first approached at Barney’s second wedding, she never deludes herself into believing they can run away together, although she does seem genuinely flattered by his spontaneity, like when he chases after the train she has boarded. By the time he gets a divorce, she realizes that she appreciates his unwillingness to woo a woman the way men typically do. It’s not so much a physical attraction; there’s an intellectual process at work, a healthy curiosity about how their minds work. They seem so perfect for one another. And yet they are limited by an unfortunate reality, namely that love and compatibility aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The final scenes are devastating, but they’re also necessary. Without them, the film’s title would have absolutely no significance. This is Barney’s version of the story, after all, and there’s nobody looking back on his life but himself. What he reflects back on, we see happening on the screen. As such, its nearly impossible for us to take his point of view at face value. That was a big risk for the filmmakers to take, and fortunately, they managed to pull it off. Barney’s Version is a bold and emotional triumph of tone, character, structure, and plot – a film that, much like life itself, mixes the sweet with the sour and doesn’t provide much in the way of escapism from our shared realities.
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Sony Pictures Classics