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