It’s not very often I recommend a movie that is a complete mess, but Barney’s Version is one of them. This movie is a mess, both tonally and thematically. It seems as though it does not know what type of movie it wants to be. Whether that be a comedy, a tragedy, a murder mystery or satire, Barney’s Version hits all of these marks but not so successfully. Even though the film is all over the map, I still recommend it and here’s why.
Barney’s Version is a film based on the novel by Mordecai Richler and follows a 30 year span of the life of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a Canadian alcoholic and failed TV producer. It tells the strange story of his three wives going from his free spirit hippie first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) to his Jewish Canadian Princess, second wife, she has no name but goes by the 2nd Mrs. P (Minnie Driver), to his perfect partner, third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Really the strangeness comes from Barney’s meeting and pursuit of these women. Ostensibly, a romantic comedy, full of happenstance, luck and ambition; slowly the film turns darker and darker. Finding Barney the main suspect of a murder mystery to the later parts of his life dealing with Alzheimer’s. Barney’s Version does not establish itself fully to continue down this road of tonal shifts and more importantly, it does not feel natural.
The big takeaway from this film are the performances, which are top-tier across the board. From Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a loving and concerned father, really the only constant support in Barney’s life. But even his death, seems to go for this unnatural tonal shift, which completely bothered me, and continued to do so throughout the whole film. To Barney’s third wife, Miriam, played by the lovely Rosamund Pike. Altogether beautiful, strong and smart; she gives the film a much needed sense of emotion and weight. Barney is in fact a despicable character but seen through Miriam’s eyes, we see the good inside of him.
The greatest performance of all is, of course, Paul Giamatti as Barney. He plays this role with such gravitas and nuance, it’s hard to see why critics are not talking about his performance but would be more concerned with Mark Walhberg’s and Christian Bale’s in The Fighter. Paul Giamatti delivers a performance that will stay with you long after this mediocre movie will. His Barney is so crass, brutish and at times spiteful but at the same time, there is a hint of charm and poise, which is why we see so many characters gravitate towards him. Paul Giamatti elevate the film to a level it does not belong to.
Barney’s Version is a complete mess of a movie and it feels, as if, in better hands it could reach the level it was striving for. From director Richard J Lewis, whose last film was the ‘memorable’ K-9: P.I., does not seem to have the wherewithal to handle a smart and sophisticated story like this. Which is a shame, it feels like there’s a better version of this movie somewhere out there, perhaps the one that lays with Barney.