Barney’s Version is an emotionally draining film in the best possible way, emptying you of every laugh, gasp and tear that you have left.
The film is told through a series of memories of antihero Barney Panofsky, a bedraggled TV soap producer in his mid-'60s. As the flashbacks unfold, his successes and many failures become apparent, mainly the relationships with his past three wives, as he comes to accept the finality of his own existence.
For director Richard J. Lewis, the film is a change from his usual work on crime-drama CSI. Nonetheless, Lewis and relatively new screenwriter Michael Konyves have successfully developed a tight but comprehensive adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s original novel.
However what really drives the film are the fantastic performances from a highly notable cast. Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways, John Adams) handles the title role impressively, especially considering Barney’s extreme emotional scale. Whether dishing off witty one-liners or smashing glass tables with his bare fist, Giamatti ensures that the scenes seem natural and unforced which is important in appreciating a character who isn’t so agreeable.
Giamatti should be considered lucky to be surrounded by a strong female trio. Rachelle Lefevre (Twilight’s Victoria) delivers a feisty and free-loving performance as Barney’s first wife Clara, while Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting, Sleepers, The Deep) is hilariously irritating as the loud-mouthed and exaggerated 2nd Mrs ‘P’. Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, An Education, Die Another Day) shines as Barney’s third wife and true love Miriam. When Barney first meets Miriam and his second wedding, she is an innocent and sensible girl but soon grows into a passionate and driven NYC radio host. Despite the contrast Pike’s performance is exceptional, delivering a controlled and realistic performance in every scenarios.
Finally, Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Rain Man, Wag the Dog) is excellent as Barney’s father Izzy, a retired police officer who frequently shocks surrounding people with his tales as a Jew on the force. Hoffman continually steals scenes, overshadowing other performances with his wise-cracks and rough charm.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the ease and fluidity with which the storyline moves. Jumping back and forth, across time and space, the attention to detail in both the actors’ vocal and physical performances but also in the costume, make-up and set design creates an accurate portrayal of Barney’s life. The beautifully shot film spans four decades in a variety of locations including Rome, New York and Montreal.
Barney’s Version had the potential to be yet another ambitious romantic comedy, but with careful nuances and attention to detail it has become a satisfyingly moving film that is sure to please audiences.
Barney’s Version opens March 24, 2011. If you tend to cry in movies; bring tissues.