Tripping down memory lane
By Dan Kois
Friday, January 28, 2011
O Montreal! City of smoked meats and separatists, hockey’s Habs and Leonard Cohen. And home, of course, to Mordecai Richler, the laureate of Anglophone Quebec, who in 10 novels chronicled Jewish life in the province with a wry humor (that only thinly veiled his outrage.
“Barney’s Version,” for which star Paul Giamatti won a well-earned Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy (he was then snubbed by the Oscars), brings Richler’s corrosive final novel to the screen. If Richard J. Lewis’s film can’t re-create the novel’s complex stew of grievances, dirty jokes and misremembered anecdotes, it’s still a warm tribute to a writer who, despite what you may have heard about Canadians, wasn’t very polite at all.
Neither is Barney Panofsky. He smokes and drinks too much; he left his own wedding to chase a girl; he prank-calls his ex-wife’s new husband in the middle of the night. Producer of an awful soap opera in its 30th season on the air, Barney seems blithely unconcerned about the value of his life’s work. (He named his company Totally Unnecessary Productions.) But he is haunted, in a series of flashbacks, by the wives he has lost and the best friend he may or may not have killed.
First: Rome in the ’50s, where Barney meets and weds his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who is crazy as a loon. “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife,” cracks aspiring novelist/heroin addict Boogie (Scott Speedman), one of Barney’s coterie of expat buddies, all dependent on their one solvent friend to support their artistic dreams.
Then back to Montreal, for the film’s endearing middle act, which pits Barney and his father, city cop Izzy Panofsky (Dustin Hoffman), against Barney’s second wife, a brittle and hilarious Jewish-Canadian Princess played by Minnie Driver. The movie isn’t as cruel to the second Mrs. Panofsky as the novel was — though neither deign to give her a name — but it’s still a hoot to watch Driver swan around Europe on the couple’s honeymoon, assuring her mother via phone that she’s already packed away all the hotel soaps.
As for Hoffman, after the travesty of “Little Fockers,” it’s nice to see him fully engaged in a role; he’s delightful as the impish Izzy, and his scenes with Giamatti are the highlights of the movie. Each of these serious actors brings out the other’s crack comic timing. They’re even funny when one of them is lying on his deathbed. (Perhaps it’s these scenes that caused the Golden Globes to call “Barney’s Version” a comedy; it certainly isn’t the film’s rueful tone or depressing ending.)
Finally, Barney meets the love of his life, radio host Miriam (Rosamund Pike), and — undeterred by the fact that he met her at his second wedding — makes her his third wife. Life with Miriam is happy, and therefore dull to watch, and the movie’s final third drags. It’s not helpful that the murder plot, an animating force in Richler’s novel, here gets dropped for a solid hour and then unsatisfyingly resolved in the film’s final moments.
That book, narrated by Barney and footnoted by his son, pulled off the trick of making Barney’s failing memory the source of both wry comedy and pathos. Flitting from year to year according to Barney’s whim, with his unhappy son hovering overhead — correcting Barney’s errors and even pointing out passages of plagiarism — Richler’s novel is a celebration of the unreliable narrator, and a lamentation for the frailty of recall. It’s a shame that neither the film’s screenplay (by Michael Konyves) nor Lewis’s pedestrian direction does much to bring that energy to the screen.
“Barney’s Version,” the movie, is orderly where Richler’s book was messy, wistful when it ought to be enraged. Yes, it’s well acted and frequently touching. But it’s the thoughtful, tasteful indie-film version. It’s not exactly Barney’s version.
Contains language, some sexual content and dozens of cigars unrepentantly smoked.