Barney’s Version Film Review
I don’t usually write film review on the site unless it’s a movie I really truly care about (past movies I’ve written about include Iron Man 2, Funny People,etc). Mordecai Richler’s final novel Barney’s Version is one of my favourite books of all time, and when I heard they were making a movie of it, I was both excited…and very nervous. Would they manage to capture its scope? Would they manage its goofballness/sentimentality/intellectual side well?
As the cast was announced I was relieved to no small extent: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, other solid actors. But who was this director Richard J. Lewis? Apparently he’d directed a bunch of CSI episodes and the last movie he’d made was released straight to video…hmmm…
Well, I saw the film last night at a free screening at UofT’s Innis Town Hall and here’s the deal: it’s not perfect, but it manages to get more right then wrong. Numerically it just manages a 7/10. And I might even be a little biased because I wanted to like it so much. Then again, I might be a bit harsh because I loved the book so much and know just how much great stuff was left out.
Firstly, a bunch of major characters and subplots are abandoned entirely. Terry McIver (an irritating hack Canadian writer who inspires Barney to write his version of events), Saul Panofsky (Barney’s radical activist son), Hymie Mintzbaum (a movie producing friend of Barney’s), and Duddy Kravitz (one of Richler’s most entertaining and recurring characters) are all cut entirely and with them some of the most phenomenal parts of the novel. The whole ‘unreliable narrator’ bit of the book – along with the conflicting viewpoints of other characters and the writer himself – is left out and the novel is told as a straight narrative, so it’s not so much “Barney’s Version” as “The Story of Barney Panofsky”. The crucial “murder” scene that the novel keeps coming back to, and is centred around in a sense, jarringly changes tone from lighthearted to dark and bitter, whereas in the novel it only gets there on its third retelling, the first two being far more innocent-seeming. However, when it gets there, it makes sense – in the movie it seems to come out of nowhere.
The movie starts off a little shaky. The whole ‘Clara’ section (the first third of the book) goes by wayyyyy too fast, not allowing us any time to get to know Barney’s first wife Clara, who comes off as far more bitchy than crazy in the movie (in the book she is somewhat more crazy than bitchy…but still extremely bitchy). We have no idea why Barney likes her whatsoever. And the whole subplot about her becoming a feminist icon after her death isn’t touched on in the slightest.
Minnie Driver does a pretty good job as ‘The Second Mrs. Panofsky’ but they could have had so much fun with the whole never-saying-her-real-name thing, instead they just never say her name. Luckily it’s not that big a deal, and the movie does seem to kind of jive around this part, particularly in the hilarious scenes with The Second Mrs. Panofsky’s uptight parents and Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a retired cop who doesn’t always know when to shut up.
So the second marriage doesn’t last (we’re never sure why Barney gets into it in the first place, really) and Barney pursues (and ultimately wins over) Miriam, played to perfection by Rosamund Pike.
Now, this is where the movie finds its stride. Pike is so perfect in the role, so absolutely lovable; it’s a total pleasure to watch her and Giamatti (obviously great) on screen together. This section of the movie – in which they raise their kids, grow older, argue – works beautifully, and kind of redeems the film for its faults.
Towards the end, however, once Miriam steps aside, and Barney starts becoming aware of his oncoming Alzheimer’s, the film loses its grip on things. It becomes overly sentimental, whereas in the book, even when things are sad, Richler keeps things funny and exciting. The film kinds of slows down and gets teary and makes it seem like Barney’s Alzheimer’s develops from no big deal to full blown over lunch. The ending in the graveyard is next-to-laughable.
Overall, the movie isn’t bad, I wish they would’ve done a couple things differently, though I can understand that some things inevitably will get lost in the translation from page to screen. I’m hoping that the DVD has the extended three hour cut producer Robert Lantos talked about after the movie.
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