In the final third of Barney's Version, a betrayal is revealed that captures everything the movie adaptation of Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel gets right. Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) sits on a bed next to his wife Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who knows he's hiding something and suspects something horrible. He has to talk around it because he can't come out and say it. And when she realizes what he's saying, pain darts through her face.
It's an ordinary yet monumental scene, without histrionic acting, melodramatic music, or any other annoying distraction to disrupt the ordinary drama onscreen. It's that rare instance when a movie relationship acknowledges love's banality. These moments are as mundane as brushing your teeth. But how you feel in relation to the world — and to the person sitting next to you — has irrevocably changed.
This no-muss approach from director Richard J. Lewis, a TV veteran making his feature debut, allows a superb cast to carry the movie. Giamatti puts his deep, soulful reservoir of prickly empathy, comic physicality, and beguiling unattractiveness to marvelous use as Barney, a Montreal curmudgeon who has made a pretty good life for himself producing a lowest-common-denominator TV show. His success allows him to satiate his hunger for fine cigars, booze, and hockey.
That comfortable, selfish desire to please his appetites is partly why he lives alone — a divorced man whose daughter puts up with his willful behavior and distasteful impudence (like the harassing late-night phone calls to his ex-wife's husband). And his son certainly hasn't forgiven him his trespasses.
Barney's Version is just that: 65-year-old Barney remembering how he became the angry, volatile, full-of-life man he is now. The movie cuts back and forth from his temperamental present to his freewheeling 1970s in Rome (where his first wife killed herself), a safe marriage to a second wife (a marvelous Minnie Driver), and his time with Miriam, the one person he can't imagine life without. Best of all is Barney's dad Izzy (scene-stealer Dustin Hoffman), a former cop who isn't going to let anybody put down his working-class roots.
Richler's novel is a swirling beast of unreliable anecdotes brought on by Barney's early stages of Alzheimer's. The movie compresses and reconfigures the story to make it easier to handle, but the filmmakers opt for more conventional transitions: something in Barney's present — a photo, an onion in the freezer — triggers a flashback. But the slippery subjectivity of Barney's memory never really manifests itself, and the movie feels more conventional because of it.
But that's a minor quibble, mostly for fans of the book. The movie spotlights how one man's interactions with the people who matter most to him — his father, his best friend, and the woman he cherishes above them all — define him, in all his wonderfully misanthropic glory.
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