Monday, February 7, 2011

Version 2.0

Today's review is for Barney's Version, based on the 1997 Mordecai Richler novel and starring 2011 Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti. It would be fair to say that Giamatti's nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical was the main reason I wanted to see this film. A trailer seen not long after those nominations cemented it as a film of interest. Sadly, movies of this ilk tend to keep holding patterns active in limited release and wait until the Oscars are announced before making the final push for box office success. Sometimes this works, as films like Black Swan and The King's Speech made a lot of money in limited release before Oscar nominations and wide release. Sometimes, however, this backfires when a film garners no major nominations and pretty much missed their chance at the big payday. Barney's Version is the perfect example, as here was a chance to really push Paul Giamatti as a major acting force left instead in a gutter by the wayside. But that has to do with marketing and number crunching, which isn't my forte. So how does this title stand up as a film in its own right?

Challenging the idea that one can't look TOO Jewish
The film tells the life story of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), from his youth as a layabout in Italy through the marriages to his three ex-wives (played by Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver and Rachelle LeFevre), the disappearance and presumed death of his chemically-addicted best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), and to the present day, where he recounts all this in the wake of his latest divorce and continued accusations of responsibility for Boogie's death by the detective who originally accused him. The story is presented from Barney's version of the facts (hence the title), and Barney himself is an uncomplicated character, making motions through life until he meets his true, and then does everything he can to keep her with him.

"I'm so high...look at my thumb! Weird..."
I've never read the book by Richler, so while I can't say I was a big fan of the film's story as a whole, I can't be sure if this is a problem inherent in the novel or simply in the transposing of the tale to the big screen. Barney's Version can't seem to decide what kind of movie it is. The film goes from being a coming-of-age tale to a romantic comedy, dabbling in buddy films and gross-out humor, and managing to incorporate a murder mystery between the margins as well. This is unfortunate because with such a jumbled storyline it's difficult to get a gauge on what we're supposed to be feeling towards the characters, especially Barney, who appears to go to and fro along the sympathy scale without any clear destination. This might not sound bad to those reading this, but trust me when I say that I'm sure this works much better in a four-hundred page book than a 132-minute movie. Also of some concern was the film's makeup, which garnered an Oscar nom but nevertheless couldn't make Giamatti look the same age as his cohorts at any given time. I suppose they deserve credit for getting CLOSE enough.

May it last longer than the first two
The performances, however, are what make the film as good as it is. Giamatti especially makes it onto a very long list of lead actors who SHOULD have been nominated for Best Actor at this year's Oscars but didn't make the cut of final five (talk about a category that could benefit from expanding to ten nominees). Though his character goes through a few periods where the audience would be fully forgiven for thinking him a complete and utter douchebag, Barney is more often than not a good man who falls in love, loses and gains friends and enemies, and undergoes a life transformation over the course of, well, his life. Often he's the main reason I kept my eyes on the screen, and for much of the film qualifies as it's savior. Rosamund Pike is also charming as Barney's third wife Miriam, who is the love of Barney's life, the one and only. Though you can't escape that Pike looks years younger than Giamatti at all points during the film (she's only two years older than ME, folks), their relationship is shown in a very realistic manner, and Giamatti can't take all the credit for that. While Pike is forced to work under a lot of aging make-up during the film's run, she still manages to convey a different type of heart than we've seen from her before. Not to be outdone are the first two wives, played by Lefevre and Driver. Lefevre, whose biggest role to date was the role of Victoria in the first two Twilight films (and lost that role in the third by committing to this one), takes a small role and makes it hers as the snotty young woman Barney knocked up to become his first wife. Driver's career prime may not have been as high as some hoped or expected, but she's still delightful here as his shrill, overly-emotional second. Scott Speedman puts on one of the better performances I've seen from him as Barney's talented but troubled best friend, and Mark Addy makes a nice turn as a hard-nose detective sure Barney is guilty of murder. Last and unfortunately least is Dustin Hoffman as Barney's ex-cop father. Hoffman is in his "Focker" phase, with the cliche Jewish persona in full effect. He's not BAD, per se, he's simply played this role far too long and far too often, and it shows. While he still cranks out the occasional award-nominated roles, this isn't one of them.

Is the makeup making him look older or younger? I can't tell
There were times where I really wanted to get up and walk out of the theater. There were times I was sure I was seeing a masterpiece. Unfortunately, these were parts of the same film. While Giamatti deserves every great attemtion for his role in Barney's Version, the movie itself is mainly blah. It ties up every loose end with an annoying lack of subtlety, and while the ending gets up there in the "masterpiece" rating, it doesn't make up for the rest of the film not getting the job done. Not a great movie, by any stretch, but I'd recommend it just to see Giamatti and crew exchange good dialogue over the decades.

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