Barney’s Version: Rendition of Mordecai Richler Novel, Starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman

As directed by Richard J. Lewis, “Barney’s Version” is a decently made and mildly enjoyable (but decidedly not great) rendition of Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning, last novel, which some consider to be his very best.
A talented cast, headed by Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, elevates the warm, wise, often witty tale of the titular character, Barney Panofsky, a seemingly ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life.
The movie was an official selection of the 2010 Venice, Toronto, the AFI, and the Hamptons Film Fest, where it won the audience award. Sony Pictures Classics will release the movie in December in a platform mode.
The book (and the movie) assumes the shape of a candid, epic confessional tale, told from Barney’s point of view, spanning three decades and two continents, and centering on one man’s unusually colorful and long history, with all its highs and its lows.
 
Barney is motivated to tell his side of the story now, because his sworn enemy has just published a tell-all book that dredges up the more compromising chapters of Barney’s past. And what a past he has had! There were murky entrepreneurial schemes that lead to his success; three marriages, all of them terminated in one way or another, and the mysterious, unsolved disappearance of Barney’s best friend, Boogie, a possible murder for which Barney remains a prime suspect.
Ambivalence and subjectivity rule, as Barney’s memory sometimes fails him, not to mention his habits of getting blind drunk at some crucial moments of his life. Barney leads us on his unsteady walk down memory lane, not only to explain his life to others, but mostly to explain it to himself.
We learn a good deal of Barney’s personal life by witnessing his three marriages, each representing a different act of his life.  His first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) is a flame-haired, unfaithful free spirit with whom Barney briefly lives sort of a bohemian life in Rome.
After returning home to Montreal, Barney marries his second wife (Minnie Driver), a wealthy Jewish Princess who shops and talks incessantly.   It is at their very wedding, which is a lavish affair, that Barney meets and starts pursuing Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the woman who will become his third wife, the mother of his two children–and the love of his life.
As for his public life, Barney himself considers that he might have murdered Boogie (Scott Speedman), the friend whom he both adores and envies, who simply vanishes one day.
Barney perceives his adventures as chapters of, as he says, “my wasted life.”  Honest to a fault and painfully self-aware, he acknowledges all of his flaws and failings with self-lacerating wit, which makes him a complex, but not an entirely sympathetic man.
There are bad sides and good, surprising ones, such as his shameless and unrepentant romanticism, manifest in his lifelong devotion to Miriam, and his capability of unexpected acts of gallantry, generosity, and goodness.
Problem is, “Barney’s Version” is both too literal and too literary, betraying the origins of the source material.   Richard J. Lewis, who had previously helmed “Whale Music” (which was opening night of the 1994 Toronto Film fest, and scripter Michael Konyves may be too faithful and respectful of Richtler the novelist and as a result that movie is not only too long (and sometimes unnecessarily detailed), but also visually shapeless.
Even so, “Barney’s Version” represents a typical Jewish morality tale, the kind of which we don’t see much anymore, celebrating the gloriously full and realistic life of an unlikely and unforgettable man, who is a hero in every sense of the term.
Cast:
Paul Giamatti
Dustin Hoffman
Rosamund Pike
Minnie Driver
Rachelle Lefevre
Scott Speedman
Bruce Greenwood
Macha Grenon
Jake Hoffman
Anna Hopkins
Thomas Trabacchi
Cle Bennett
Harvey Atkin
Massimo Wertmuller
Howard Jerome
Linda Sorensen
Paul Gross
David Cronenberg
Denys Arcand
Atom Egoyan
Ted Kotcheff
Credits
Robert Lantos production of a Richard J. Lewis film
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Produced by Robert Lantos
Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler