Film Review: ‘Barney’s Version’

Every once in a while, you connect so deeply with a movie that it shakes you to your core. Thus was the case with Barney’s Version, a remarkable story about an unremarkable man. This movie made me do two things I have not done since I began reviewing films. About ten minutes into the film, I could tell it was something special, and I put down my notebook (which I’ve never done) because I did not want anything to interfere with the story unfolding before me. I just wanted to drink it in from beginning to end.

After I saw the movie, I sat in my car, and cried. Like big, huge, racking sobs that would not stop.  It was a full fifteen minutes before I was composed enough to drive home from the theater. The last time I had this kind of reaction to a movie was after I saw the traumatizing documentary Dear Zachary.  I cried for about three weeks after that.

But this is what movies are all about-how wonderful to find this hidden treasure that made me laugh, cry, and feel so deeply for the characters. I was emotionally devastated by this wonderfully quirky and unconventional love story.

Let’s be clear, Paul Giamatti was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nod this year, although he did win a Golden Globe for his role as Barney.  As far as I am concerned, Giamatti should officially be declared a national treasure. He is the only actor on earth who could have played this role so convincingly.

Barney’s Version spans four decades over the life and times of a one Barney Panofsky; a schlubby jewish man with a rapidly diminishing hairline who inexplicably does just fine with the ladies, thank you. He has few redeeming qualities and makes a living producing a god-awful Canadian television series. He smokes like a chimney, drinks constantly, and sabotages all his relationships. Strangely, you still come to care very deeply about this flawed man throughout the course of the movie.

You know the old adage “You can’t help who you fall in love with?”  Barney meets the love of his life at his second wedding reception. The fact that he leaves his own bride at the reception to pursue this woman (played by a lovely Rosamund Pike) is equal parts horrifying and terribly romantic.

The supporting cast is wonderful. Rachelle Lefevre plays tragic and troubled wife number one, Minnie Driver is his wealthy and overbearing Jewish princess-second wife, Dustin Hoffman plays his well intentioned father, and Scott Speedman is a longtime party pal who becomes part of a mystery integral to the story. I could have done without the mystery, but it does serve as the impetus for Barney’s reflection of his life.

Rosamund Pike is especially impressive in the film. She practically floats from scene to scene as Barney’s angelic third wife. It’s a bit hard to swallow that the sophisticated and beautiful woman would fall for the likes of Barney, especially after such strange circumstances, but it is testament to Barney’s absolute determination to win her love. He never gives up.

The end of the film is as bitter-sweet as you will ever see, and it ripped my heart out.  Some might find the film meandering and uneven, but such is life. I was completely taken in by this terrific film. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The film takes place in Montreal, and several noted Canadians make brief appearances, including Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg.  The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis (whose primary work has been in television) and was adapted from the book by Mordecai Richler. Screenwriter Michael Konyves manages a nice mix of humor and melancholy to bring Barney’s life to screen.

A final nod to the makeup in the film. I thought it odd that the film got nominated for an Oscar for best makeup, but after seeing the film, I think it is justified. The decades flow seamlessly as we see Barney and Miriam age, and it is exceptional.

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