Barney’s Version


Barney's Version

Hey did you hear this one? A man walks into a bar and...oh never mind.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Mark Addy, Macha Grenon, Paul Gross, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Thomas Trabacchi, Cle Bennett. Directed by Richard J. Lewis

All of us live two different lives; the lives that everyone sees, and the ones we actually live. It is when you see our own version of our lives that you begin to see us as we truly are.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a television producer for a horrible soap opera called “O’Malley of the North.” He smokes Montecristo cigars, drinks far too much and is crude and curmudgeonly to one and all. He has good reason to be; he is divorced and his ex-wife married a putz; to make matters worse, a retired police detective (Addy) has recently published a book that essentially accuses him of murder. That can ruin your entire day.

Barney wasn’t always like this. Once he lived a Bohemian existence in Rome with fellow artistic types like Leo (Trabacchi) – a gifted painter, and Boogie (Speedman) a gifted writer and even more gifted junkie, and then there’s Cedric (Bennett) who’s gifted at….well God knows what. Barney is getting ready to marry Clara (Lefevre), a gifted painter and poet who is, well, more Bohemian than most if you get my drift. Most everyone thinks this is a terrible mistake, with Boogie hissing “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife” but Barney got her pregnant, so he’s willing to man up and do the right thing. 

Except when the baby is stillborn and turns out to be as black as, well, Cedric, it puts an awful crimp in their relationship. When Barney blows off a reconciliation dinner with Clara (mainly because Boogie, in a stupor as usual, forgot to give Barney the invitation), the consequences are severe.

Barney returns home to Montreal where he is set up with and eventually marries the daughter (Driver) of a sour but wealthy man who disapproves of basically everything Barney is. Barney’s dad, Iz (Hoffman) is a lively Montreal detective who cheerfully admits his career didn’t advance because of his Jewishness. It doesn’t seem to bother him that much; he’s just glad to be there for his son, who is certainly a chip off the old block.

At his wedding reception, Barney meets Miriam Grant (Pike), a beautiful and erudite New Yorker who works in the radio business. Barney is immediately head-over-heels smitten with her, going so far as to follow her to the railway station, offering to take her on his honeymoon with him. She naturally declines but Barney continues to woo her in the intervening years. 

Meanwhile, Boogie’s addictions are getting worse, much to the dismay of Barney’s nameless wife because Barney takes it upon himself to care for his addled friend. One day he returns to their country lakeside property to find Boogie schtupping his wife. While Barney feigns indignity, he is actually delighted. Now he has the ammunition he needs to get the divorce he wants, leaving him free to pursue Miriam which, as it turns out, won’t take much. 

However, the problem is that Boogie has disappeared after a loud and violent argument with Barney and the now former Mrs. Panofsky said in her statement that he had threatened to kill Boogie, leading a particularly brutish detective to beat the crap out of Barney until Iz intervenes. Still, things are looking up for Barney despite the cloud of the investigation that hasn’t even yielded up a body much less a crime.  

Soon Barney and Miriam are together as it was meant to be. They make a family with daughter Kate (Hopkins) and son Michael (Jake Hoffman). A neighbor on the lake where their country house is located, Blair (Greenwood) even has radio connections and is able to get Miriam some work. However, when things are at their best is often when things are about to come crashing down about your ears. 

This Canadian production, based on the last and arguably the best novel of distinguished Jewish-Canadian author Mordecai Richler (he of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fame) has already been distinguished in that Giamatti won the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Actor in a Comedy (which by the way is not really an accurate classification for this movie). Unfortunately, Giamatti didn’t get an Oscar nomination, largely because the field was so strong this year but he could easily have done. His portray of Barney Panofsky is unforgettable and might even be a better performance than the one he gave in Sideways.

He has a strong backing cast. Dustin Hoffman is still as elfin and charming as he’s ever been and Iz Panofsky goes right up there in his pantheon of memorable characters, which is saying a lot. He is absolutely incandescent whenever he gets onscreen. Likewise is Rosamund Pike, a wonderful British actress who is just now beginning to get noticed over on this side of the Atlantic. As with Giamatti, this is her very best performance to date. As the long-suffering Miriam she puts up with her boorish husband and perhaps comes closest to understanding him of anyone until he makes the one transgression that she cannot forgive.  

While there are comedic elements, this is most certainly not a comedy. It’s very painful to watch in places and I spent the last 20 minutes in tears as I watched things fall apart. Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things we can’t have – not because they are unobtainable, but because we don’t have the wisdom and maturity to recognize how to keep them. It is true that the ending of Barney’s Version is very sad, but the movie is not about that; rather, it’s about the journey and taken as a whole, this isn’t a tragedy, not really.

REASONS TO GO: Giamatti, Hoffman and Pike all deliver standout performances. This critic was moved to tears by basically the last 20 minutes of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense and hit too close to home for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language; a goodly amount of it in fact, and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Izzy Panofsky and his grandson Michael are played by, respectively, Dustin and Jake Hoffman who are father and son in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: This is playing in limited release and is worth seeking out on the big screen; however chances are you have a better shot at seeing it on home video, streaming or on-demand.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Tuck Everlasting

Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.