There are novels that shouldn't be made into movies, and then there are novels that can thrive on the big screen -- if only they can be shaped cinematically. A number of writers tried to tackle famous Canadian novelist Mordechai Richler's Barney's Version over the years -- including the author himself -- but it was TV writer Michael Konyves who knew how to whittle away at the dense, 417-page satire and come out with a crisp tale that loses some of the bitter edge, replaces it with humanity, and gives a talented stable of actors the chance to offer up some of their best work.
Barney's Version focuses on the life and loves of one Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). He has a close relationship with his awkward and inappropriate father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), an ongoing friendship with his old pal and carefree soul Boogie (Scott Speedman), and three wives whose marriages map out Barney's trajectory. Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) is a troubled young woman who doesn't seem quite right, "Mrs. P" (Minnie Driver) is a Jewish American Princess so annoying and ill-suited for Barney that she doesn't have a name, and finally Miriam (Rosamund Pike) is the love of Barney's life. His world plays out from the drug-ridden, carefree European days of the '70s, to a modern-day Montreal reality of age and loss.
Where the novel is known for having a narrator more reprehensible than he is relatable, Konyves adds greater humanity to the story by simplifying the tale and infusing each main character with an aspect of Barney's personality. Izzy brings out his son's sense of blind loyalty and love, Boogie inspires his reliability and on-going support, Clara taps into his sense of duty and responsibility, Mrs. P picks out his disdain and loathing, and Miriam uncovers the romantic, head-over-heels idealist. In fact, every interpersonal reaction pulls out a different side -- good or bad -- of Barney, allowing Giamatti to explore numerous experiences that span the spectrum of emotional involvement. There are moments of great happiness, all the way down to rock-bottom misery.
Though Barney's Version is generally a look into one man's life, a murder mystery offers an additional narrative push. In the present day, an ex-cop has written a tell-all novel claiming that Barney murdered Boogie. In the novel, this release inspires Barney to write his own version of his life's events. In the film, it merely sends Barney into past memories, which eventually lead to the questionable story behind his friend's possible demise. But it's only a possibility -- as is the ultimate "revelation" at the end of the film about Boogie's disappearance.
Barney's Version is, as the title suggests, Barney's version of his life. This is a highly personal account offered from one mind, open to all versions of bias, hazy memories, and mental weakness. Perhaps Mrs. P isn't as offensively acidic as Barney makes her out to be -- she could just be the perpetrator of a few ill-placed comments that morphed into a monster over years of judgmental memory. Did Barney act as heroically as it seems when meeting Clara's father, or is it how he chooses to remember an upsetting moment? As Barney begins to forget where he parked his car, it becomes all too possible that nothing is entirely accurate in this version of events.
As a novel, questions of authenticity are easier to discern, as the book is littered with footnote "corrections" and clashing opinions of fact. Nevertheless, director Richard J. Lewis is able to offer the same feel on a more subtle level. In two key scenes, mirrors not only offer a stunning way to frame a moment, but suggest an echoed, possibly false or mimicked quality to the event. But more obviously, Lewis aptly pulls just the right personality out of his actors.
Though we're no stranger to Paul Giamatti's often harsh and combative characters, such as Miles in Sideways, this film offers him the chance to embark on a rollercoaster of emotions, and it's never been more fun to see his talents stretched on the screen. Dustin Hoffman knows how to balance an embarrassing dad with a father who's not as daft as he seems, and is also fiercely protective of his son. Scott Speedman's charm and smile work well for Boogie as the waste-of-talent friend too enamored with drugs and sex -- and too scared of the real world -- to make something of himself. Minnie Driver might tower over Giamatti, but it works for Mrs. P, making her an imposing presence -- a suffocating shadow he must escape. This is also the project Montreal native Rachelle Lefevre lost The Twilight Saga: Eclipse for, which was a wise move -- pitting her against some of Hollywood's best talent in her hometown, rather than playing a vindictive vampire. And though Rosamund Pike is only 31, she brings a lot of worldly depth to Miriam. The subtle and effective makeup helps to age her, but it's almost irrelevant due to the mature presence she brings to the screen.
But not everything works so well.This is, of course, another example of hot-woman-with-the-shlump syndrome, where stunning women easily commit to Barney without any acknowledgment that they're dating down -- save one moment where Giamatti's round body cannonballs into bed with his lovely, long, and lace-covered wife. Furthermore, we are talking about a story where one female character isn't even allowed a name.
However, Richler's work always found ways to infuriate while it entertained and basked in humor. Giamatti once again brings his sarcastic levity and brusqueness to the proceedings, but the Canadiana of the feature also helps bring laughs. Usually cameos and references would be lost on the world outside of the maple leaf, but there are a bunch of widely recognizable moments mixed into the narrative. Most might not notice Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand's cameo, but they will spot some very notable filmmakers playing director over at Barney's Totally Unnecessary Productions. In fact, just like Richler infused real-life Mountie TV into his novel, Due South, Paul Gross, and Nanook of the North come together in the film in a pretty perfect way.
It's the rare feature that can offend and charm at the same time, that can take a man who always plays the acerbic loser and make the same theme seem fresh. Though it loses some of the push to question meaning, and might get too caught up in the humanity of the affair, perhaps that's for the best. We're seeing Barney's vision as he sees it. Not as others frame it.
Note: Some particulars about the production and Richler's novel were taken from this set visit piece.