Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is a man who forges his own destiny by making decisions that are usually bad and almost always selfish—but wants to live with only those consequences that suit his wants and needs. A man of mostly average ability, looks and brains, he surrounds himself with talented, beautiful and intelligent friends and lovers and then, one way or another, he double-crosses and neglects them all.
Barney is easy to dislike – a serious boozehound whose words slide through truth to viciousness when he’s had too much to drink—and sometimes when he hasn’t—and a man continually driven to let down those he loves and then to refuse to take responsibility for his actions. But he is also easy to love, for his deep and unremitting respect and affection for his father (Dustin Hoffman), the all-consuming passion he feels for his third wife Miriam Grant (a strong and delicate woman whom even their son recognizes as too good for Barney, played by Rosamund Pike) and for a host of unexpected and undeserved acts of kindness toward at least three people: his first wife, Clara (a deeply troubled beauty played by Rachelle LeFavre), the long-suffering actress in the bad soap opera that earns Barney all his money (Masha Grenon), and his talented but utterly degenerate best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman).
Barney Panofsky is in short, human. And, even more than the death of Boogie which is intended as the central mystery of the story – Did Barney kill Boogie in the midst of a drunken argument after finding him in bed with his second wife?— it is this very humanness that provides the drama of Barney’s Version. We feel as though we are looking inside the workings of real human relationships comprised of people who stumble through their lives the way we all do, with occasional moments of great heroism and passion and others of great stupidity and cruelty, all of which have the potential to change everything forever. The tension is waiting to find out whether Barney’s next act is going to be one that reinforces or undermines the kind of peace of mind that provides the necessary scaffold for a happy life.
The performances in this movie are stunning and Paul Giamatti in particular has earned every accolade he gets. Among other strengths he brings to the role, it is almost impossible to believe he’s not Jewish, and Canadian. Dustin Hoffman, as Barney’s father, reveals the depths of his dramatic talent that Hollywood has seemed bent on hiding for too long. Rosamund Pike is perfect: restrained, quiet, talented, intelligent, beautiful, more than deserving of the love that Barney heaps on her from the moment he sets eyes on her (which he does in the midst of his second wedding).
The makeup artists also deserve commendation. Rosamund Pike (born 1979) ages convincingly not only because of the increasing maturity of her character but also because the close-ups reinforce that she is getting older, while Giamatti (b. 1967) looks as utterly believable as a young man as he does as the father of young teens and later in older middle age. And a special shout-out to my dancing instructor Nathaniel who was outstanding during his six seconds of screen time during Barney’s wedding to his second wife (played by Minnie Driver).
It has been many years since I read the novel by Mordecai Richler upon which this movie is based (also excellent; you can buy it here), and I know that the scriptwriter has cut out quite a lot, but what is left is still pure Richler – a story that makes you laugh and cry for all the gains and losses experienced over a lifetime by a group of people you feel you have come to know and love as well as you do some of your own relatives and friends.
Watch the trailer: Barney’s Version