Barney's Version is based upon Canadian Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel of the same name. Directed by Richard J. Lewis, the film has quite a winning cast with Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, Dustin Hoffman portraying Barney's father Izzy, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, and Bruce Greenwood among many talented others.
I'll try not to spend too much time recounting the story because the makers of the film pretty much stuck to the book on this one. We follow Barney Panofsky from his time as a 20 something bohemian living abroad through his three marriages to his death. During the later years of his life, Barney develops dementia and his personal version of his own life story becomes a bit cloudy. Though this makes for a really interesting perspective in the novel (the story is told in first person narrative during Barney's old age), it also made the book difficult to read at times. The story translated to film a bit better as we were able to follow and recognize Barney's debilitating mental condition without having to rely on him as our primary narrator.
Nonetheless, the movie tells the same story you'll find in the novel of a rather ordinary man who leads a pretty extraordinary life. Of a man who is accused of murdering his best friend, who falls hopelessly in love at his second wedding with a woman who is not his new bride, who you can't help but root for in spite of all his faults and errors.
We first are introduced to a more crotchety elderly Barney, then provided with his reminiscences of the past to help fill out the story. Though this sort of narrative technique can often feel forced and cheesy, it occurs quite naturally in Barney's Version with nearly seamless time shifts between the 1970s all the way up to the present.
Despite the large span of time covered by the film as well as the sheer number of major life events included, the story never feels rushed nor is the film itself too lengthy. A lot of people come and go into Barney's life and we are able to come to know each of them with enough intimacy to understand their personalities and their importance to Barney's story. But we rarely find ourselves as attached to any of these supporting characters as we are to Barney.
Though he spends his life making poor-quality soap operas, drinks too much, has a history of rather hurried marital decisions, and never makes any bones about his innumerable flaws, we're on Barney's side throughout the course of the entire movie. As they're so often driven by love, we forgive Barney his mistakes. Despite his often disheveled appearance and unhealthy lifestyle choices, we can't shake the tender attachment we have to the movie's flawed lead.
Much as I enjoyed the book, this is one of those rare cases where I think the film version has surpassed the written one. Now that I have seen the novel brought to life by some brilliant actors, I appreciate the essential story all the more. Though much of the life and heart that make this movie so remarkable must be attributed to the story itself, it is through the delivery of some truly inspired performances that this movie succeeds.
Keep in mind, this film covers a man's life from his 20s through his death at the age of 66. And we see everything, his joy and happiness, his discontent, his wide array of relationships, his downfall, his faults and weaknesses. Not any easy role to play but one that Giamatti pulls of with remarkable grace and true talent. Even beyond the lead actor, there were noteworthy performances delivered all around. Hoffman was great, as was to be expected, as Barney's father. Driver played Barney's insufferable spoiled second wife to the point where I was thoroughly annoyed and disgusted with her - just the reaction the story calls for. And Pike, as Barney's true love Miriam, was simply perfect.
Supported by a great story and elevated by award-worthy performances, Barney's Version provides an honest look at one man's life and what it all comes down to in the end. There is a bit of humor as well as a good dose of heart but the film never strays far from its very realistic perspective. Though the book isn't quite as laden with sentimental overtones, it works well for the movie. By the time you leave the theater you'll likely be holding back a few tears, or at the very least, you will find yourself feeling deeply moved by the whole experience of the film.
I wish I could be a bit more critical of the film but, after mulling it over for a day and discussing it with Mike on the long car ride home, I still cannot think of a single thing I would change or improve. I appreciate how well the film stuck to the story told in the novel, because I think that is the story that needed to be told - no variations were necessary. And it is because of such great performances that the story translated so well to film. A great plot-line accompanied by great acting - really what more could you ask for out of a movie?