Thursday, February 17, 2011

'Barney's Version' needed more bite

Giamatti's in peak form, but he can't bring this adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel fully to life. fully to life.

Barney's Version, the late Mordecai Richler's final novel, has been brought to the screen with Paul Giamatti in the title role, a seemingly perfect match between player and character. Avid and hungry, Barney travels from the faux Bohemianism of youth to the well-established affluence of middle age, supporting his excesses from success as a producer of a crappy but popular sitcom in Montreal.

Giamatti does Barney justice. He captures Barney's boundless skepticism, filtering it through the dawning realizations of a man who thinks he may have wasted his life. Giamatti understands Barney’s competitiveness, as well as his capacity for vindictive sarcasm. Barney is a man who can turn an inadvertent slight into a grudge match.

Of course, Barney drinks too much. Of course, he spends too many evenings planted on bar stools watching his beloved Montreal Canadians. Of course, he’s perpetually resentful.

Unfortunately, Giamatti’s performance can’t quite keep the movie from looking like an imitation of Richler’s novel rather than a full-bodied drama. On screen, Barney’s Version feels sketchy and episodic, a story in search of something to say.

The movie's title suggests a problem that surely would have confronted any filmmaker trying to adapt Richler's acerbic and very funny novel. Barney's Version was written in the first person. Mired in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the always cynical Barney Panofsky reviews a life in which he made bundles of money, married three women, and, at one point, was suspected of murdering his best and most admired friend.

All of that worked well in a novel of caustic density. But director Richard J. Lewis can’t find a dramatic equivalent for the tug and bite of Richler's prose, which gave full vent to Barney’s every prejudice. What we get here is not Barney's version of events, but an outsider's view of Barney.

Barney, as someone in the novel says of him, is a collector of grievances. He also treats his impulses as if they were virtues. What else can be said of a guy who decides to fall in love with a stranger during his own wedding reception? Clearly, Barney is not afraid to court disaster. Maybe he even craves it.

Like Philip Roth, Richler, who died in 2001, sometimes found himself at odds with the Jewish community, perhaps because he seldom saw his characters through veils of sentimentality. He had a feeling for rough-and-tumble Jews who weren’t afraid of a fight, smart guys who didn’t always know how to get out of their own way.

On screen, though, some of Richler’s characters come off as caricatures. Barney's second wife (Minnie Driver), for example, is too much a spoiled brat of Montreal’s Jewish upper crust.

The pragmatic Panofsky men – particularly Barney’s father --stand in opposition to the privileged Jewish world that gave birth to Driver’s character. Dustin Hoffman, who's becoming a master of small roles, plays Izzy Panofsky, a retired Montreal detective of happily crude temperament. (A familial note: Hoffman's son Jake turns up late in the movie; he plays Barney's son.) Izzy may not be the world’s most self-aware person, but that’s precisely what makes him tolerable. He’s unashamed.

Barney's life revolves around three women: his first wife (Rachelle Lefevre) is a sexually advanced, free wheeling painter Barney meets as a young man during a period when he’s hanging around with artist and writer friends in Rome. (In the novel, this interlude takes place in Paris). Barney’s second wife (Driver) represents the life Barney’s supposed to lead. Lower middle class kid marries money, does all right for himself, improves his standing.

The love of Barney’s life, played by the beautiful and sophisticated British actress Rosamund Pike, seems detached from the class distinctions that ripple through Montreal’s Jewish community. Like most of the women in the movie, Pike’s Miriam never seems fully realized. She becomes Barney’s third wife.

Throughout the story, Barney tries to maintain his friendship with his dissolute but brilliant pal Boogie Moscovitch (Scott Speedman), a promising young writer whose life increasingly is dominated by drugs and alcohol. Even at his worst, Boogie never entirely surrenders the air of superiority that both attracts and repels Barney.

During the course of the movie, Barney's youth gives way to age. His life is tarnished by error, the onset of Alzheimer's, and the dissolution of his marriage to Miriam, thanks to a night of infidelity.

Marital disaster probably loomed anyway; Miriam already had begun to express a desire for self-realization, seeking to return to her pre-marital career as an NPR-style radio interviewer. She's supported in this ambition by a vegan producer (Bruce Greenwood), a man Barney immediately and thoroughly detests. And, yes, this part of the movie feels clich├ęd, a gesture toward passing time and trends, not unlike the long hair the characters sport in the movie’s Rome segments.

Some of Lewis’ scenes are vibrant and alive, and his movie stands as an often-interesting look at a man with enough appreciation of irony to name his production company, Totally Unnecessary Productions.

For all it gets right, Barney’s Version misses much of Richler's invaluable raucousness and rancor. It’s Barney’s story, but with a little too much of the bite removed from the incessant musings of an old dog who probably thinks he never really had his day.

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