Feb 6, 2011

Barney's Version [15]

Dir: Richard J. Lewis
Barney's Version breaks little new ground. We've seen lots of versions of this idea before. The film covers four decades and three marriages in the life of Barney Panofsky; an irascible, alcoholic TV producer. His life is eventful but not massively unusual until, at his second wedding, (to a shrewish Minnie Driver) he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike) and falls instantly in love with her. From there on out Barney pursues Miriam relentlessly, eventually making her his third wife, with most of the film's focus falling on this relationship.

Character studies are tough, because if the central performance doesn't work then you're screwed, everyone else may just as well pack up and go home. Fortunately, this film has the blessing of the enormously talented Paul Giamatti in that lead role, and he's as good as ever. He plays Barney from the age of about 30 to about 65, and he's always convincing. The ageing make up gives him some subtle help but the work is all Giamatti. Barney is hardly hateful, but he's certainly a deeply flawed man; he's rude, looking down on others, an inattentive parent and drinks pretty much constantly, he's hard to have much sympathy with.  Giamatti, to his credit, neither judges Barney nor begs sympathy on his behalf, in a role that could be seen as crying out for a hammy performance he is, for the most part, subtle and detailed.

That Giamatti's performance doesn't overpower the rest of the film is down to a good supporting cast. Scott Speedman shows again that, outside the Underworld movies, he's a pretty effective actor and Dustin Hoffman gives his most engaged turn for a while as Barney's dad. Hoffman is well cast, he doesn't look much like Giamatti, but there's enough similarity in the way they play their roles for the father son dynamic to be convincing and affecting. There are a couple of disappointments in the cast too; both Saul Rubinek, in a short cameo, and Minnie Driver completely miss the tone and overplay their characters to a ludicrous degree. Driver's performance is pretty damaging, okay so Barney's second marriage is short and a disaster, but wouldn't the sequence be much more interesting if Driver's rich Jewish princess wasn't quite so irritating?

However, the standout in the supporting cast, and for my money in the film as a whole, is British actress Rosamund Pike. She started in Bond movie Die Another Day, but has avoided the curse of the Bond girl and has recently, quietly, become one of the most reliably interesting supporting actresses in her age group, notably stealing An Education from under the noses of a quality cast. She does it again here. There's not a showy moment in her performance, and not one where the actress shows through. It would have been easy to play Miriam as the perfect shining jewel that Barney sees her as, but Pike's performance is much more interesting and layered than that. She is especially brilliant in her last scene, having one last dinner with Barney, they've drifted apart, but you can still feel the connection between them, see it in her eyes. It's another wonderful performance from Pike. Giamatti plays well off her too, they're clearly an odd couple, but throughout you buy into this relationship, perhaps not always understanding it, but you believe in it, and that makes the film's third act rather moving.

It's a good job that these performances are as good as they are, because otherwise you'd be much more aggrieved at how straightforward Barney's Version can be. Very little unexpected happens here and literate as the dialogue is you can often her the wheels clank as the plot moves forward. It's essentially a long coming of age story, and hits every familiar button along the way. It doesn't do any of them especially, but at times you start to be a little worn down by just how many overworked scenarios pop up in the film.

At the end of the day, Barney's Version is a pretty average film on most counts; the script has some shonky moments, and Richard J. Lewis' direction, while proficient, is nothing to home about. However, it is so lifted by the performances, especially those of Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. It's by no means perfect, but it is well worth seeing.

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