Barney’s Version (2010)
February 4, 2011 1 Comment
Left in old age with little to show for his decidedly eventful life, Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) dovetails into assorted past adventures while drinking beer in an empty bar. Chronicling his hat-trick of marriages; first to the unstable Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), then to the affluent second Mrs. P (Minnie Driver), at the wedding for whom he meets his alleged one-true-love – and third wife – Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Along the way, Barney also finds time to bond with his Casanova father (Dustin Hoffman) and wind up the only suspect in an ongoing murder investigation. Isn’t it quirky!
I wanted to like Barney’s Version. I looked past the trailer’s promise of platform-side prat-falls and a thoroughly uninspiring plot, the overwhelming doom and gloom, and the smorgasbord of pretentiously indy talent on offer. After all, depressing movies can be good too and this one even promised a stand-out performance from the always exceptional Paul Giamatti.
As the titular Panofsky, Giamatti is a thoroughly convincing portrait of malcontent. Aided by exemplary prosthetics that perfectly complement Barney’s social and psychological deterioration, there is a marked contrast between the friendly newlywed and the bitter television executive. However, while oozing realism and grit, there comes a point painfully early on in which you begin to suspect that Barney had it all coming, whether his unlikeability was well acted or not.
Failing to tune into his third wife’s first radio interview, instead choosing to listen to sports and drink beer with dubious acquaintances that are never seen again, the good will quickly gives way to tedious levels of “well, what did you expect?” Asking, as he does in the trailer, why he might start giving up on Miriam after years of relentless pursuit, the emotional impact of his determination is undermined by something considerably stalkier.
Having decided with startling immediacy that she was the woman for him – having just wed someone else minutes earlier, no less – Barney does very little to earn Miriam’s affections. He stalks her onto a train, bombards her with unwanted gifts and, on being given the opportunity to finally woo her, drinks too much and vomits himself unconscious. Rather than acting like a normal human being and filing a restraining order, bride the third waits diligently by his bedside, abides his chauvinism and misogyny, and takes him in sickness and in health – ever the dutiful plot device.
As he sabotages each marriage with different levels of intentionality, the plot jumps from jarring contrivance (a skydiving accident?) to eye-rolling melodrama. There’s a questionable paternity, an apparently requisite infidelity, a token jealousy and even a marital break, each cliché pointing towards the realisation that you’ve seen it all before. While we avoid the final nail in the coffin cat-fight, Barney’s Version is every bit the farce of less esteemed ensemble dramaturgies. Frankly, I was expecting more from Giamatti.
In fact, there is very little reason for anyone to like Barney – let alone the waning audience. Taking breaks from his selfishness only to defend his inappropriately crude father (HA HA HA – it’s like Little Fockers all over again!) and ridicule his staff, a last act development aims to counteract his earlier unpleasantness. This is too little, too late, however, and whether a fault of the source novel or Richard J. Lewis’ direction, the character remains fundamentally unsympathetic until the very end, contrived emotionality notwithstanding. I realise the film is called Barney’s Version, perhaps this makes my review a critique of the character himself rather than the movie he inhabits. Either way, the prognosis isn’t good.