What starts out as the biography of a scumbag turns out to be something else entirely. Oh this is not to say that Barney wasn’t a scumbag at times [I’m pounding the nail with everything I have], or that he wasn’t obnoxious at times [I’m lightening up a bit], or, [now I’m just being kind] that he wasn’t usually and most often intentionally politically incorrect. Of course he was all of those things.
Barney’s Version stars Paul Giamatti. Barney’s full moniker is Barney Panofsky – and in the role, he’s from Montreal, and is a Canadian Jew. He’s the son of an ex-cop, one Izzy Panofsky who is played with flair, panache, and plenty of acting chutzpah [I’m Intentionally avoiding alliteration here] by Dustin Hoffman. You might think that Hoffman stole every scene he was in. He’s that good.
The film was adapted by screenwriter Michael Konyves from Mordecai Richler’s novel and directed by Richard J. Lewis. You may recall that another of Richler’s novels set in the rich milieu of Montreal’s Jews, was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a 1974 film, pre-Jaws, that helped put Richard Dreyfuss on the actors’ map where he would be noticed by a certain Mr. Spielberg.
To give you an idea of what Barney was like – I’ll quote the tag line of the film: First he got married. Then he got married again. Then he met the love of his life.
Does that help you get an image of Barney in your mind? How about this – the film opens with a guy drinking a scotch, smoking a cigar, and making a phone call:
Blair (just awakened from sleep): [he awakes with a wobbly and barely audible] Hello?
Barney: Blair – I’d like to speak to my wife …
Blair: Oh Barney – it’s 3:00 o’clock in the morning –
Barney: Put my wife on the phone
Blair: She’s not your wife and I’m not waking her –
Barney: Well then, just ask her what she wants me to do with all these nude photos I have of her? Come to think of it, you might want them yourself, if only just to see what Miriam looked like in her prime – [click – Blair has hung up].
Barney looks quite pleased with himself. The next morning Barney gets a phone call from his grown daughter from his marriage to Miriam, and we hear that Blair had suffered a heart attack last night shortly after 3:30 AM.
But wait there’s more. Later that same day, Barney pulls into his usual watering hole. The bartender points at the guy at the other end of the bar and she says that he’s had more than a few.
He is a police detective. It seems that this detective has just had a book published. It is about a murder investigation involving Barney as the only suspect. After some not so pleasant pleasantries, the detective comes over and gets right in Barney’s face as he has something to say:
Detective O’Hearne: You’ve screwed over everyone you ever knew or cared about. Now the whole world’s gonna know what a cock-sucking murderer you really are …
Barney: [After a beat] You could use a mint.
Yes, that’s our Barney. He’s quite a guy, and at this point we are only 7 minutes into the movie.
It’s also quite a movie and quite a script. The detective’s book makes Barney reflect a bit on his life. So we then go back and forth in time, for a closer look at some key events in Barney’s life as he recalls them. In short – Barney’s version.
He’s now a Montreal television producer and his studio is called Totally Unnecessary Productions. It was his best friend that was murdered. Barney was married to three beauties. The first was back in the 70’s when Barney and his friends were living the high life in Rome, Italy. That woman, Clara Chambers Charnovsky, was performed by Rachelle Lefevre, and by the time of their wedding, she was carrying a child. As she so inelegantly described the circumstances, “He knocked me up after a magical 30 seconds of friction.” I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that she was a blythe spirit, a sharp witted beauty, and a real hottie.
Barney’s second wife was played in non-stop talkataive fashion by a motor-mouthed Minnie Driver. She was a rich girl, and you’ll have to see the film to see if Barney was attracted to her for her looks or for her balance sheet.
In a great scene, Barney brings his Dad (Hoffman) with him to a dinner at the mansion on the hill which is where Minnie who is called the 2nd Mrs P in this film lives with her parents. At some point Izzy dings his fork against the glass to get everyone’s attention. Looking directly at Minnie’s Mom, he says, “The chicken was great.”
She replies, “It was fish.”
His response, “No shit… “
The third wife was the aforementioned Miriam, played delightfully by the winsome Rosamund Pike. Most of us are going to wonder why these women were attracted to him. Or what they saw in him. Now’s he’s a drinker, a chain smoker of cigars, a rapid hockey fan, and as Clara Charnofsky tells it – Barney’s got a three inch prick.
But Barney’s charms and/or lack of charms is what the film is about. It is a character role for Giammatti, and he fits it perfectly. The story wouldn’t have worked with a Redford of 25 years ago, or a George Clooney today. No, it was a role for the likes of Giamatti or a younger Dustin Hoffman who had to settle this time around for playing Barney’s Dad. But make no mistake – Giamatti hits this one out of the park.
He starts off as a shit, and by the time the film ends he’s grown into a fuzzy and almost lovable curmudgeon. But hey, no one’s perfect. What a guy. You’ll love him and the film despite the less than stellar final act. Trust me – you will. If not, just hold back from returning it to Netflix and have another good look at Barney – he’ll be happy to share his version with you.