Barney's Version (2010)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 15, 2011 @

Barney's Version is not Mordecai's version.

It is Paulie's version.

Paul Giamatti said he didn't even read the novel by Mordecai Richler when he portrayed Richler's Barney Panofsky.

Why screw up your performance by being influenced by the character's creator?

Richler's Barney is a bilious, vulgar, self-destructive, churlish, very human jerk. He calls himself a "monster."

Giamatti turns Barney from an angry, ill-tempered iconoclast into a lovable rogue. That cuddly scamp.

There's a murder mystery in both versions of Barney's Version. Let me solve the movie's mystery -- Giamatti kills Richler's Barney.

This is not to say Giamatti's tours de force maiming isn't entertaining. It is. But the movie is simply diverting rather than the book, which is thought-provoking, disturbing, and unforgettable.

Richler, who died in 2001 at the age of 71 of cancer, would see the irony in Giamatti's pilfering of his character's name, and the whittling down of his novel.

The movie of Barney's Version takes us from the expatriate days of Barney Panofsky, a Jew from Montreal, in Rome in the 1970s, surrounded by burgeoning artistes, to his final days suffering from Alzheimer's.

Throughout the movie Barney is a zealous, hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, hockey enthusiast. We witness his three marriages -- he falls in love with his eventual third wife at the marriage reception for his second. He avidly pursues her.

Barney is accused of murdering his best friend whom he caught having sex with his second wife, which enables him to marry his third. But ultimately human frailty intervenes.

It's a portrait of love and loss.

Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version was published in 1997. The rights to the more than 400 page book were obtained by fellow-Canadian Robert Lantos, who had produced Joshua Then and Now (1985). Richler had written the novel and the screenplay.

Richler had received an Academy Award nomination for the script he had written with Lionel Chetwyrd for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) from his own novel.

One of the funniest speeches in the novel Barney's Version is delivered by Duddy Kravitz about Crohn's disease. Of course, it's not in the film.

Neither is the great line that Barney says relating Senator Joe McCarthy to film critic James Agee.

In the book Barney is street smart, but doesn't have much formal education. Still he is well-read. His remembrances, often amusing, are teeming with details and literary allusions: Middlemarch, Sterne, Othello, Candide, Auden, and a multitude of others. None are in the movie. Let's dumb Barney down.

The movie Barney's Version might be subtitled Mordecai's lobotomy.

Richler attempted to write a screenplay of Barney's Version, but he died. Several other writers took their shots, but none were able to transfer Richler's vision -- and especially his voice and style -- to the screen.

Then along came unheralded Montreal screenwriter Michael Konyves to bring his blunt shears to the project. He did more patchwork than Dr. Frankenstein.

What screenwriter Konyves did in some instances is shameful. But producer Lantos and director Richard J. Lewis welcomed him.

Lantos, in The Star, said of the script by Konyves, "When I read it, I heard Mordecai's voice say something like 'now we are cooking.'"

No, actually Mordecai said, "Now, I am puking."

First Konyves got rid of the crucial narration. The book is a memoir narrated to the reader by Barney. After his death, his son Michael assembled the book, writing an Afterward, and he added footnotes to correct his father's errors. It's a wonderful literary device [see Nabokov].

One of the major themes of the novel -- perhaps the major one -- is that Richler is showing that memory falters and fails, perception misleads, and "facts" are undependable. One can't trust anything -- absurdity rules. It's a potently human theme.

In the movie, all that is gone.

Richler's artistry falls to a legion of conventionality. Konyves changes Barney's expatriate experience from Paris in the 1950s to Rome in the 1970s. Who cares what era and what country?

In his novel Richler's important first sentence is, "Terry's the spur." In the movie, there is no Terry. Who needs the spur? Konyves instead decides to use the detective Sean O'Hearne (Mark Addy) as Barney's literary rival. That way he can combine two characters. Huh?

A telling refrain in the book is, "Damn damn damn." It's used at least a dozen times, and is the final line of the book. Forget it. The movie instead ends in a graveyard where crucial lines go to be buried.

A few omissions are apt. One probably doesn't miss the politics (e.g. Canadian separatism). But the novel's details and allusions have vanished into thin writing.

Konyves substitutes his own changes. A line about oral sex is transferred by Konyves from the first wife to the second. Who cares who says it? Richler might, since it's relevant for a specific character.

Instead of showing something about the first wife Clara, Konyves makes it an easy joke about the Jewish princess second wife. In his glib treatment he makes wife #2 a caricature. Minnie Driver does her best to humanize her, but Konyves prevents that.

He also changes the companion of Miriam at the second wedding to being gay. Another cheap, easy joke. Richler would never have sanctioned that.

The key mystery is slyly solved in the book. Richler uses the urban legend about the remains of a scuba diver -- transported by a water bomber -- found by firefighters in a burnt-out forest. Richler is playing with man's shaky perception.

The mystery in the movie is pretty much of a mess and lacks Richler's point.

Director Richard J. Lewis -- essentially a television director -- and his stellar cast are limited by the callow screenplay.

The cast does its damndest with what they are given. Giamatti calls on his patented personality -- with a glint in his eye -- for his version of irrepressible Barney.

Of course, he has to make him appealing. [Is it true that Justin Bieber is going to play Holden Caulfield?]

Dustin Hoffman -- who probably would have played Barney if he were younger -- is terrific as Barney's father Izzy. Giamatti and Hoffman play a mean game of shuffleboard acting.

Scott Speedman is memorable as the addicted best friend.

Rachel Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamund Pike are all effective as the three wives, but one wonders what they might have been if Barney's Version had been true to the characters that Richler created.

Barney's Version has received a single Academy Award nomination. For makeup. Is it because in Barney's Version Mordecai Richler is covered with cosmetic powder?

At the end the movie is dedicated to Richler. But "Dedication" is not truth.

Mordecai Richler would have scorned the movie.

Damn damn damn.

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