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Barney's Version

Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler

The caustic spirit of Mordecai Richler -- a brew made up of cigar smoke, Scotch, impatience, and the Montreal Canadiens -- flows through the antic Barney's Version, the long-awaited screen adaptation of the Richler novel about a smart, incorrect, funny, angry man and the many women in his life. It's a love story that ends in divorce, and a memory play that ends in Alzheimer's. It's also a murder mystery, but you get the feeling that no one ever took that part very seriously, not even Richler. It stars Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, the anti-hero of this tender, adulterous and alcoholic romance, and he brings a kind of quicksilver cynicism to the role: Aging persuasively through the 40 years of the film, he nails not just Barney, but Richler, as well, giving the character the same stout profile and those half-glasses he would wear on a string around his neck. Richler may not have been Barney, but they probably would have been best buddies at Grumpy's, the Montreal bar where Barney occasionally repairs to escape the responsibilities of life. We meet him in old age, divorced from his third wife. It's late at night, and he puts down his cigar and his Scotch -- the movie has the choked atmosphere of a wood-panelled men's club -- to telephone her new husband and ask him what he should do with the nude pictures he has of her. It's a typical Barney prank, so gleefully malicious that you're on his side from the beginning, if only for reasons of political incorrectness. That could be a mistake. Barney is a bad man -- a good bad man -- and in Michael Konyves' adept script, the story unfolds through flashbacks, as we see how Barney came to marry and lose each of the three wives in his life, and to betray himself in a cloud of lust and self-regard, and also to stay true to his ideals, if you can call them that. The quintessential scene comes at his second wedding, a raucous party that he shares with the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, it's not his bride. Nothing as minor as a wedding stands in the way of Barney Panofsky. The story begins with a misspent youth in Rome (it was Paris in the book, but Italy offered better financing), where Barney befriends artists with similar tastes for carousing, especially Boogie (a nicely dissolute Scott Speedman), a self-destructive writer and drug addict in training. Boogie is a kindred spirit -- owing his publisher a book, he submits a pornographic reworking of the Book of Job -- and his disappearance is the pro forma plot line of the story. We also meet the first Mrs. Panofsky, the self-mythologizing Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who introduces herself with, "Mr. Charming here knocked me up by way of a magical 30 seconds of friction.'' It's a marriage doomed to be brutal, nasty and pregnant, notable mostly because it gives Saul Rubinek the chance to make a memorable cameo as a grieving father. The Second Mrs. P (known as The Second Mrs. P) is Minnie Driver, the attractive daughter of a rich man who he realizes was a mistake from the start (it's at their wedding that Barney spots wife No. 3). She turns out to be not much more than the attractive daughter of a rich man, vacuous and chatty and soon to be betrayed. Her phone call to her mother from their honeymoon in Rome ("Yeah, we went to the Vatican. It's old'') is reminiscent of the empty babble that drove Seymour Glass to suicide in J.D. Salinger's A Perfect Day for Bananafish. She gives way to Miriam, Mrs. Panofsky No. 3, and, as played by Rosamund Pike, she's a dream: She abides cigars, indulges Barney's infatuation with Les Habs, and she's one of the film's few adults. "Life's real,'' she says. "It's made up of little things: minutes, hours, naps, emails.'' Barney's Version is also made up of little things, an accumulation enriched by Dustin Hoffman's scene-stealing performance as Izzy, Barney's happily vulgar father. "The chicken is great,'' he assures the rich mother of his son's second wife. "It's fish,'' she explains. The movie could have used more of him, and more of Barney's occupation as the head of a TV production company called Totally Unnecessary Productions -- Richler's shot at Robert Lantos, who returned the favour by producing this movie -- where a magnificently bad TV show about Mounties is being filmed. The lead of that show, its directors, and the maitre d' of a fancy Montreal restaurant, are all played by Canadian show-business figures, giving Barney's Version a playfulness missing in much of our cinema. Director Richard J. Lewis (Whale Music) balances the tones of outrage and melancholy the way Barney balances his various addictions: by keeping up with it. Barney's Version isn't exactly about anything in particular, but it has the momentum of a boozy night in good company. © Copyright (c) Postmedia News Official Trailer
Showtimes: 

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Directed by: 
Richard J. Lewis
Running Time: 
132
Country(ies): 
U.S.A.
Language: 
English
Starring: 
Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre
Screenplay by: 
screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler

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