Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Barney's Version

Another in a growing subcategory of films that ask us to empathize with men who behave like sociopathic children, Barney’s Version is about a boorish, alcoholic, secretly self-loathing Jewish-Canadian producer of schlock TV who falls for a cool shiksa goddess the moment he meets her – at his second wedding, yet.

Barney (Paul Giamatti) remains smitten with Miriam throughout their improbable 20-plus-year marriage and for the rest of his life, and though I can believe that (she’s written as a saint and played by the gravely soulful Rosamund Pike), I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she saw in him. As their own son puts it, after Barney finally drives Miriam away by breaking the one rule she asked him to honor: “How could you fuck this up? She deserved so much better than you.”

Barney’s Version toggles back and forth in time, from Barney’s descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s as a cranky alte kaker to his youthful stint in Rome, where he knocks around with his glamorous his best friend, Boogie (a nicely slippery Scott Speedman), and picks up the first of his three wives. Giamatti gains and loses years far more effectively here without the use of CGI than any actor I’ve seen with its help, so I was glad to see the makeup in this movie was nominated for an Oscar.

But they didn’t do such a great job on the story and characters. Director Richard J. Lewis has worked for years in TV (most recently at CSI: Crime Scene Investigation). That may explain the airless, soundstage feel of the film, which feels more like a succession of scenes – some of them more like bits – than an organic and emotionally effective story. I get that Barney has misspent his life, but this movie makes it feel more like he barely lived at all.

Cutting briskly from one set piece to the next, including far too many conversations in restaurants or dining rooms, Barney’s Version plays like a mediocre TV dramedy. There are the cheap shots at caricatured characters, like Barney’s second wife, a nameless Jewish-American princess bravely brayed by Minnie Driver, who calls her mother from her honeymoon in Rome to dismiss the Vatican (too old) and kvell over the hotel soaps. There are the tepid running jokes, like the one about the aging star of the soap opera Barney produces who clings to the Bulgarian press clips that prove her “international appeal.” And there’s the badly written shtick straining too hard for the punchline. At yet another dinner-table conversation, Barney’s snooty second father-in-law asks Barney's warmhearted, blue-collar father (Dustin Hoffman at his most elfin) if he abused the people he arrested when he was working as a cop. “Are you saying you were gratuitously violent with suspected felons?” the father-in-law harrumphs. “Oh, no,” says dad. “I always got paid."

Pike is dignified and sympathetic, as always, though she seems almost sedated (maybe that explains why Miriam puts up with Barney?), but Hoffmann and Giamatti crank up the charm to a manic degree, lasering folksy-father and gruff-but-loveable-cuss rays at us like drunks taking aim at a dartboard.

Every now and then, usually in an exchange with his father or Boogie, we glimpse a smart, sardonic, loyal and ultimately loving Barney you can imagine people being drawn to. The rest of the time, you just wonder why anyone should waste their time on him.

Written for TimeOFF

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