Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 24, 2011 9:25 pm 
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Loose living

I haven't read the Mordichai Richler novel, but judging from this watchable and intermittently entertaining movie, a full-dress Canadian production with an excellent cast, Barney's Version is one of those stories that makes life look a lot crazier than it actually is, and also a lot simpler. Too much may be happening -- this depicts most of a man's adult life -- but we never learn what Barney's work for decades running a TV production company is like, and the first two of three wives flash by precipitously. I must have blinked, because I missed how he happens to get hitched to the first one, a liar and deceiver. The third, Barney Panofsky (the excellent Paul Giamatti) meets at the wedding of his second, and he tries to run off with her directly from the wedding party, getting on her train back to New York from Montreal. This lady is called Miriam Grant, and she's a shiksa, a non-Jew. That's important, because there's a lot here about being Jewish, though that, like major incidents in the tale, is painted in with broad strokes one imagines were subtler in the book. Barney himself isn't outright repugnant, but it's hard to see what's to like in him, other than his devotion to wife number three, or what he's like, other than that he drinks a lot, especially single malt scotch, smokes many cigars, and behaves in a heedless manner, more suited to his wild days in Rome than to running a profitable TV company in Montreal over the following decades. I blinked and missed most of the Rome period too.

Miriam is played by the English actress Rosamund Pike, and she's a cool and classy lady. She handles well the tricky task of rejecting Barney firmly, because his behavior is outrageous, but politely enough so that when some time later he approaches her again with divorce papers signed, she believably (well almost believably) is willing to accept his suit. But why does she? This is a detail that's skipped over. Richler seems to be saying something rather unfavorable about Jewish women. The second wife (played by Minnie Driver) is Jewish, with rich, disapproving parents and an inability to stop kvetching. The parents have particular trouble accepting Barney's crude father, a retired policeman (played by none other than Dustin Hoffman). Miriam is restrained, beautiful, and true blue. She sets clear-cut rules and as long as Barney follows them they have a wonderful marriage. That message gets across. We get some interesting casting. Barney's son Michael is played by Dustin Hoffman's son Jake, who's quite strong, delivering his few speeches with verve and looking every bit his father's grandson. Canadians being as loyal as they are, David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan are on hand in small roles. Lina Wertmuller's nephew Massimo plays a doctor. Scott Speedman has lots of grungy style as Boogie, Barney's druggy, non-Jew hard-user best friend, whom Barney may have killed (in an irrelevant subplot), before the marriage to Miriam, thus preventing Boogie from keeping his promise to attend all his pal's weddings. All this stuff comes in recollections the gray-haired Barney has, while he can still remember anything. The sad, rather scary final sequence of the film depicts how he gets Alzheimer's in his mid-sixties, rapidly loses the capacity to do anything, and dies. Moral: maybe best to stay off Montecristos and Lafroig. The movie is informed by some nice songs by that great Canadian Jewish warbler, Leonard Cohen.

When another man comes along to tempt Miriam away while the kids are growing up we see it a mile away. He's Blair, a vegan, good at fixing things Barney's helpless with, like outboard motors, involved in radio, Miriam's first love, and he's played by Bruce Greenwood, a man adept at playing smiling, lily-white villains. Miriam goes to New York to visit their son Michael, and incidentally Blair is around. Barney can't handle being alone and sleeps with the very first bleach-blond TV extra floozy who comes up and puts the make on him at his favorite bar. His punishment for this infidelity seems harsh. Michael tells Barney he never deserved his mother as he helps Miriam movie out of their posh Montreal flat. It's over just like that, twenty-some years of happy marriage, nothing left for Barney but to reminisce and lose his mind. Some nuances in the book must (I hope) be missing here. And perhaps some of the edge. Giamatti can't help making this prick lovable because that's who he is. The character has been compared to Giamatti's Miles in Alexander Payne's 2004 Sideways. (What a lot has happened in this career in seven years!) But the writing here is not as concentrated, witty, and specific as Payne's. Michael Konyves' screenplay may be a translation of the Richler novel, but it doesn't make an elegant, coherent, hilarious movie like Sideways, which may have been a bit overrated, but still deserved the attention it got because of its neatness and originality. Barney's Version does not exhibit those qualities. The director, Richard J. Lewis, has previously helmed only TV shows.

What can we make of this guy? It's a great role, in terms of putting an actor through his paces, for Giamatti of course gets to play a man over three decades, from wild partier in Rome to dull dodderer by the lake, and as Giamatti has said in interviews, he gets to drink and smoke a lot along the way. He also was able to win the Golden Globes' Best Actor award for this work. But it isn't such a great role in a sense either, because Barney Panofsky is all bluster and gesture and no depth. This has drawn my attention to Rosamund Pike, who is far from a newcomer; her credits include Pride and Prejudice, An Education and Made in Dagenham, but this really puts her front and center and she is quietly authoritative in a way that's very original. I'm looking forward to seeing her kill herself in Burning Palms, a new movie directed by screenwriter Christopher Landon which Rex Reed recently described as "Five dark and kinky stories dedicated to spreading the rumor that Los Angeles is a breeding ground for tortured, hothouse neurotics who live in a wasteland of toxic neighborhoods connected by freeways." Sounds like LA to me.

┬ęChris Knipp 2011

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