Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Second Look At Barney's Version

Although independent film Barney's Version may never recoup its production budget, it will remain one of Paul Giamatti's finest performances albeit buried in an obscure slice-of-life confessional genre (sometimes called a dramedy) that the public seldom if ever embraces. And then add a length that sometimes makes the movie feel more epic than it is.

Barney's Version is best described as a four-act film with the fourth act serving as the mechanism to interweave the three previous acts about the life of Barney Panofsky. This may also be why filmgoers never sought out the film.

After the shortest first act sets the film up as darkly funny, each subsequent act becomes increasingly longer and more melodramatic until it descends into a full-fledged drama, leaving an inexplicable empty and hollow space. But that's not necessarily bad.

Barney Panofsky's life is a fictional biopic of one man's life.

Panofsky is an impossibly ordinary producer of a Canadian soap opera beset by the early stages of Alzheimer's, which makes his telling of any story somewhat suspect. After a slow introduction, the first act picks up on Panofsky in Rome with four friends, about to make what he sees as a noble move in marrying a free spirit (Rachelle Lefevre) who is about to become the mother of his accidental love child.

With all the promise of being darkly funny, Panofsky marries her just days before learning that the baby is, irreconcilably, not his but the seed of his black friend. While his acid-tongued first wife is surprisingly remorseful, she might have tried to make the ill-fated marriage work if not for her hidden chronic depression and an overlooked apology card to Panofsky.

Act two sends unsettled Panofsky into the arms of an attractive, educated woman (Minnie Driver) from an affluent and formally stiff family. But for all these admirable exterior qualities, she turns out to be a surprisingly talkative, naggy, and shallow shopaholic. Still, their doomed relationship is hardly her fault alone as Panofsky falls head over heels in love with a wedding guest (Rosamund Pike).

Although the incessant long-distance pursuit is drawn out and awkward, he eventually gets his chance to build the life he always wanted after he catches his lifelong friend (Scott Speedman) in bed with his second wife. The one-time meaningless fling while his friend was recovering from various addictions becomes the grounds for his divorce and leads to the questionable and unexplained death of his friend.

Where the film works is the dozens of vignettes that delve into individual perspective and perception. It's all too easy to cast Panofsky as an affable character undone by circumstance and insecurity or judge him as a narcissistic and ungrateful buffoon who makes one poor choice after another.

The choice is yours. A case can be made to love or hate any of the characters, with perhaps the exception of Panofsky's politically incorrect father (Dustin Hoffman). He is a hero in faithfully standing by every decision his son makes, for better or worse.

A Nod To Lewis, Lantos, Konyves, And Richler.

Barney's Version is the adaptation of Canadian author Mordecai Richler's last novel. What is most striking about the original work is the near autobiographical accounting of it, which brushes up against Richler's own life.

Michael Konyves delivers a fair and solid treatment of the work, a surprising and serious uptick from his sci-fi television movies. Along with him, Richler fan and veteran producer Robert Lantos seemed to help elevate everyone involved. As director, Richard J. Lewis does a fine job in his return to film after nearly six years of television work. His experience as a writer no doubt helped; he had convinced Lantos to give him a shot by doing the adaptation on spec.

Barney's Version Lives At 3.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While it is true the movie lags at times and drifts in and out of believability, leaving little direction in how anyone might come away from the film, this same quality makes an honest treatment of life, with all of its clumsiness. The overall effect is a timeless piece of work with some sharp performances smartly shot, scripted, and delivered.

If you never mind how it was marketed (sometimes as a romantic comedy, which it is not), you'll likely think of it as a gem of an indie film that's not for everyone but will be surprisingly timeless for some. It's not a great movie, but it is an interesting story in its ability to make human frailties seem understandable and deplorable at the same time.

Barney's Version is available on iTunes. The two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo is available from Amazon and the film can be found at Barnes & Noble. You can also find the book on Amazon.
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