Once in a great while a film sneaks up and smacks me right between the eyes. I LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS. It’s usually a film I know next to nothing about, and it’s almost certainly not a film you will see plastered on bus stop benches or the outfield walls at your local big league ballpark.
Barney’s Version is that divine marriage of performance, script, and direction that is so very rare in film. Directed with absolute sure handedness and care by Richard J. Lewis (best known for tv’s CSI), this is a film that capitalizes not only on an impeccable screenplay adaptation (Robert Lantos) put to pitch perfect use by the amazing Paul Giamatti, but brings back to life the magic of a national treasure named Dustin Hoffman, as well as superb supporting work from the forgotten Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), the “who knew he could act?” Jeff Speedman (Underworld), and the exquisitely graceful Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice).
Unlike another film I liked recently (The Lincoln Lawyer) where the gratuitous camera moves kept reminding me the project was in the wrong hands (Brad Furman), every shot in Barney’s Version has a purpose, every transition motivates the story, every performance in harmony.
Thus the difference between “liking” a film and “loving” a film.
I loved this film.
Giamatti plays ‘Barney Panofsky,’ a philandering television producer whose appetite for variety and lack of impulse control gets him in more trouble than he’s probably worth. But we love him anyway, much like the way we loved Giamatti’s self-pitying ‘Miles’ in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004).
While ‘Barney’ is an irascible and unsympathetic scoundrel when it comes to women (he ditches his bride on their wedding night to chase a new love), he’s a loyal friend and a thread of the story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of his best bromance bud, ‘Boogie’ (Speedman).
Through flashbacks we see a young and adventurous ‘Barney’ living abroad, lounging about with ‘Boogie’ and a clutch of ex-pats, painters, poets, and cliché wannabe novelists.
The flashback scenes are beautifully layered and intercut between present day moments to give a clear foundation and motivation for the cynical and disenchanted life and career of ‘Barney Panofsky.’ His choices in women have been sloppy, his career unfulfilling (his company Unnecessary Productions), his relationship with his various children hollow, his amusingly candid fellowship with his disgraced ex-cop father (Hoffman) is loving but pathetic. It all adds up to a bleak existence.
Except for his love of the Montreal Canadians – and the one that stole his heart.
“Is she the mother of your children?” asks ‘Izzy’ (Hoffman) when he is being consulted by ‘Barney’ whether or not to divorce his present wife (Driver) and chase his dream (Pike).
With misty eyes and absolute sincerity, ‘Barney’ says “Yes.”
And the result is one of the sweetest on-screen relationships I can recall.
Barney’s Version is a sad film. Alzheimer’s disease dominates much of the third act, so for those of you struggling with aging parents or your own sudden lack of memory sharpness, be warned that this film, while masterfully crafted, does not pander or pull punches.
What it gets right it gets so very right.
When ‘Miriam’ (Pike) asks ‘Barney’ to promise her “one thing” and he responds “anything” she bristles and says “No, don’t answer anything. Because it’s not real – and life is real. It’s made up of little things. Minutes, hours, naps, errands. Routine. And it has to be enough”
My mother used to confide in me that what saddened her most about her divorce from my father was how shortsighted he was in not realizing that by walking away from his family he would no longer be around for the “little things.” The morning breakfasts when everyone is most relaxed. The drives to and from places and the conversations that evolve. The moments between the moments that are supposed to be profoud. Events often don’t live up to expectations. Real life happens more on the margins.
Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner Capote, Synecdoche, New York) have taken the term “character actor” and turned it on its ear. In both we have powerhouse performers capable of not only carrying the narrative load of a film, but stealing our hearts, picking our pockets, and even getting the girl.
I did not need further proof after Sideways and the wonderful HBO miniseries Jon Adams to confirm Giamatti’s ability. He is simply an actor at the top of his game. He clearly cares about his work and selects projects that reflect his integrity.
In Barney’s Version we have been handed a gift from all involved, but especially Giamatti. His earnest attention to detail cannot be ignored.
“To ‘Barney,'” says his struggling painter pal in Rome during the glory days. “Be as great in act, as you have in thought.”