Three Women, One Moron
Flat characters weaken Barneys Version
by Molly Templeton
BARNEYS VERSION: Directed by Richard J. Lewis. Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. Cinematography, Guy Dufaux. Editor, Susan Shipton. Music, Pasquale Catalano. Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman and Rachelle Lefevre. Sony Pictures Classics, 2011. R. 134 minutes.
Perhaps you're yearning for another movie about a bumbling moron of a man who, despite his apparent lack of appealing qualities (or, indeed, anything resembling a fully developed character) manages to find himself married not to one but three gorgeous (if one-note) women. Perhaps someone, somewhere, was desperate to see a charming, scruffy Dustin Hoffman turned a peculiar shade of orange and left to beam warmly at his son, the titular Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). Barneys mother, like that of a fairy-tale heroine, is dead and only occasionally referenced. Maybe we can chalk problems with women up to her absence.
Or maybe its just poor writing. Barneys Version, adapted by Michael Konyves from the novel by Mordecai Richler, is a movie entirely in shorthand. (One character is defined primarily by his being a vegan which, in this film among other places, is code for "well-intentioned and irritating.”) The movie will tell you all kinds of things about Barney and about his relationships while showing little more than the fact that Barney, a producer of cheesy Canadian television (watch for Canuck directors Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg in quick cameos), loves hockey, Scotch and cigars, and has a penchant for getting married for no good reason.
Barney first weds unstable, unsympathetic Clara (Rachelle Lefevre). "The Second Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver) is a shrill, materialistic woman obsessed with her masters degree. Shes perfect for Barney. But at their wedding, Barney spots Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) and falls madly, deeply in love ã which, in his version, means at first sight). His pursuit of Miriam is tireless and tiresome and, inexplicably, it works. Pike, whos long deserved better roles (and got one in 2009s An Education), gives the film a kick with her stern, wide-eyed rejections of Barney, whose idea of romance veers perilously close to someones elses idea of stalkerish behavior.
Theres nothing wrong with Giamattis performance, though its effortless qualities are somewhat undone by the awkward makeup that attempts to take him from the 1970s into the present. But Barneys Version is so shallow, so jumpy ãits like a string of photos through which were expected to draw our own emotional connecting lines ã that his performance is muted by the question marks hanging over the narrative. Why would these women ã any of these women ãmarry Barney? Why, for that matter, would Barney marry the first two? What connects Barney to the friends (among them a surprisingly effective Scott Speedman as drug-addicted Boogie) weaving in and out of his story? Is there any reason for yet another film in which women are either unintelligent and unreliable or perfect and porcelain?
Though its speckled with moments of humor (mostly courtesy of the loose, cheerful Hoffman), Barneys Version winds down into a crushingly sentimental and borderline manipulative ending ãone that Pasquale Catalanos score tries desperately to render touching and sweet. Giamatti sells the older, failing version of Barney more effectively than the film deserves. Tonally inconsistent, poorly paced and not nearly as clever as it would like to be, Barneys Version feels like half of a story youve no need to hear to the end.
Barneys Version opens Friday, March 4, at the Bijou.