A Riveting Story Is Elevated by Captivating Performances in ‘Barney’s Version’

If you’ve seen the trailer for Barney’s Version, whether in the cinema or on recently released DVDs from Sony Pictures Classics, it’s reasonable to conclude that Barney’s Version is a lighthearted comedy about a lovable loser’s romantic misadventures. That seems exactly what the marketing people want us to think. But to quote Chuck D, “Don’t believe the hype.”

That’s not to say Barney’s Version isn’t an excellent film. It is. It’s well written (Michael Konyves based his screenplay on a novel by Mordecai Richler), marvellously acted (Paul Giamatti won a 2010 Best Actor Golden Globe for his work in the title role) and lavishly shot. The important thing to bear in mind, however, is that Barney’s Version is not a romantic comedy as its trailer misleads; rather, it’s a drama that carries us through the defining moments that occur within nearly 40 years of the eponymous character’s life.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is an acerbic, cantankerous television producer whose search for true love is inconveniently realized when he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike) at his wedding to another woman (played by Minnie Driver). The film follows Barney as friends, loves and opportunities come and go. Despite its many phases, a steady presence in Barney’s life is his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), who provides Barney parental and philosophical guidance. Through much of the film, Barney is struggling to understand the mysterious death of his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), while an overzealous detective (Mark Addy) is determined to accuse Barney of Boogie’s murder.

There are many things that Barney’s Version does very well. First, the film is true to its title; that is, viewers get the story from Barney’s point-of-view through director Richard J. Lewis’ nearly exclusive use of restricted narration. Only when it best serves the story does Lewis provide brief omniscient views.

Second, nearly every scene in the film is delectably composed. The film begins in 1974 Rome, most of the film’s action takes place in Montreal and in rural Quebec, and a few scenes are set in New York. Lewis captures the majesty of each: Rome in all its delicious color; Montreal with its irrefutable French influence; and a New York that elicits Woody Allen’s cinematic love letters to that city. Barney’s country escape, a lakeside cottage in Quebec’s woodlands, is framed in idyllic splendor. More than just postcards, these lush landscapes bear significant philosophical weight; specifically, whether Barney is experiencing highs or lows, the ambient surroundings remain indifferent.

Another aspect of the film that is brilliantly executed is the telescoping of time. Because the sory spans three decades, we see the characters age gracefully and realistically (in fact, Barney’s Version was a 2010 Oscar nominee for best makeup). The occasional lower third provides a helping hand where needed; elsewhere, the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens (of whom Barney is a rabid fan) also provide temporal context as appropriate. Nowhere in Barney’s Versiondoes one hear a clunky establishing line such as Back to the Future’s cringe-inducing “We’re here in good old 1955”; the audience can deduce the time frame for themselves.

But the biggest virtues of Barney’s Version are the spellbinding performances of the cast. Giamatti shines in the lead role, lending Barney all the emotional nuance of the character: diffidence alternating with confidence; smugness struggling against guilt; selfishness vying for time with selfless love. Indeed, there are hints of Giamatti’s depiction of Miles Raymond, the hapless oenophile-cum-author in 2004’s Sideways, but Barney is far more complex than Miles. Even when we think we understand Barney’s motivations, he can surprise us; that said, Giamatti makes Barney’s every move plausible and realistic within the script.

Hoffman is brilliant as the unflinchingly supportive father. Driver by turns delights and vexes as the privileged daughter of a wealthy businessman. Pike, as Barney’s true love Miriam, shows us a strong personage whose virtues — love, patience, compassion, trust — can also prove weaknesses. Speedman, as the drug-addled Boogie, deftly carries his character from trendsetting artist to tragic addict. And Mark Addy, his native Yorkshire accent all but undetectable, is a chillingly ominous presence as a Montreal cop who has become hardened, cynical and even desperate — a character light years away from Addy’s Detective Constable Gary Boyle in Ben Elton’s sitcom The Thin Blue Line.

Thematically, Barney’s Version is fearless: drug abuse, police brutality, alcoholism, anti-semitism, art, sex, fidelity, Alzheimer’s disease and death all receive a fair share of screen time.

On the downside, Barney’s Version may wear on a bit in the final third of the film, and although key plot points do surprise, others, such as Barney’s third divorce, are telegraphed far in advance. But these are minor peccadilloes in what is a fascinating story enchantingly acted and sparklingly told.

Barney’s Version is available on home video in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack; the Blu-ray contains the lion’s share of extra features, including interviews with Giamatti and with the late novelist Richler, as well as commentary from director Lewis and writer Konyves.

Also included among the extras is the theatrical trailer. Watch the film, then watch the trailer and compare. All the film’s comic-relief moments strung together comprise the marketing version, but that can’t hold a candle to Barney’s Version.

RATING 8 / 10