Last week I saw Barney's Version, Richard J. Lewis' adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name. Perhaps it should tell you a little bit about my enthusiasm for the movie that it took me a week to write about it. I definitely was expecting more of a dark comedy, but instead discovered it to be a rather dreary story about a pretty miserable guy.
At first, even the usually wonderful Paul Giamatti comes off like a caricature, but I think that may have been the fault of a couple of poorly directed scenes. By the time his character meets Miriam, his third wife-to-be (at his wedding to his second wife, no less), Giamatti has settled into the role of middle-aged Barney comfortably enough for me to want to hate the actor himself.
This is a story that suffers from the all-too-common trope of the complete loser of a guy who can't help but draw numerous amazing women to himself, whom he could take or leave. Barney's first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) openly hates him while she struggles with her own serious mental health issues, but his second wife (played by Minnie Driver) seems to start off with actually almost as much affection for Barney as for his decent position as a TV producer. When he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), he is transfixed by her (and who wouldn't be?), and spends years pursuing her. She, inexplicably, relents to his affections in a scene that is so difficult to believe that it sets the entire film off-kilter. I ask you, would you say yes to a man who spent his entire marriage pursuing you, was recently a suspect in his best friend's suspicious disappearance, and who showed up for your date completely wasted?
Barney and Miriam remain married for decades, producing two children. Barney's debilitating alcoholism, which has surprisingly few negative consequences except for the way it burdens those who love him, his anger issues, and his slovenly behavior seem to be no barrier to affection from Miriam over the years. She gets upset when he marginalizes her interests or friends, but otherwise remains ever faithful. Not so for Barney. After their divorce, Barney begins suffering from the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's, and Miriam, now remarried, along with their adult children, must care for him. The final scenes of the film definitely make it clear that Barney is a character to be pitied and cheered for, which was just too much to ask after watching the decades of his adult life unfold.
The acting was wonderful, and Rosamund Pike did a lot with very small gestures and expressions to really make me fall in love with her. Dustin Hoffman, as Barney's incorrigible father, was vibrant and funny, and his son Jake did well playing Barney's son Michael. The Academy Award nominated makeup was absolutely impressive, especially given what I've read was a rather small makeup budget. Characters age believably over the course of about thirty years, so the movie does boast an impressive collaboration between performances, makeup, costume, and set design.
Finally, there is the conceit of the title, which is that events may not have happened quite as depicted, but that this is Barney's version of things, colored both by his arrogance, lies of omission, and the effects of the Alzheimer's. I thought this was interesting, but I suspect that it was more successful in the novel than in the film. There was also a real eye-roller of a plot point regarding the disappearance of Barney's best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman, hot even when playing a junkie), which was ripped unimaginatively from urban legends of years past. Somehow it worked in Magnolia, but certainly not in Barney's Version.