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The Comedy In Tragedy

Paul Giamatti makes an unlikeable malcontent sympathetic in “Barney’s Version”

By Cristina Merrill / Jester correspondent

Pictured: Paul Giamatti with Dustin Hoffman, who plays his father in “Barney’s Version.”

Barney’s Version is the tale of Barney Panofsky, a man who steadfastly digs his own proverbial grave. His self-destructive nature is what drives the movie and, oddly enough, makes Barney so interesting and even relatable. Paul Giamatti displays his versatility as an actor – he makes his character of Barney likeable and interesting, despite his many flaws (and there are many).  Barney drinks like a fish, smokes his heart and lungs out, runs around in a constant state of dishevelment, and slacks off in all three of his marriages. And yet, you cannot help but hope for Barney, hope that he will change his ways, hope that the woman he loved – and wronged – will take him back, or hope that he will reconcile with his son. Such sentiment for such a flawed character can only be obtained through a brilliant performance, delivered flawlessly by Giamatti and supported by a stellar cast of characters. Barney’s Version is a beautiful, moving film that will make audiences look inward.

The film opens with Barney sitting alone in his apartment, drinking and smoking and calling his ex-wife’s husband, taunting him about how much better she looked when she was married to Barney. This lonely state is just a fraction of the misery in Barney’s life. He is estranged from his son. A book has been written that portrays Barney as a prime suspect in the death of an old friend. Other than that, Barney seems to have a normal life. He lives in a beautiful apartment in Montreal, gets along well with his daughter, drives a Mercedes, and owns his own production company, Totally Unnecessary Productions.  But he is clearly unhappy and misses his ex-wife.  The reason for their divorce is not immediately clear, sparking curiosity. What brought this man to the sad and lonely state he is in today? 

Much of the first half of the movie is flashback, showing a young Barney who marries twice during his drifting, clueless years. His first marriage took place in Italy to a hippie-ish American girl (played by Rachel Lefevre) who gets pregnant by Barney’s friend and tries to pass the baby off as Barney’s. His second marriage to a wealthy girl (played perfectly and quirkily by Minnie Driver) from his native Montreal is the catalyst for the movie. It is never clear why he marries her, as they have absolutely nothing in common other than being Jewish. They come from different classes – her parents hate Barney and his cop father (a solid performance by Dustin Hoffman). But marry they do, and it is at their wedding where Barney meets the love of his life, his bride’s cousin, Miriam, setting the stage for a tumultuous marriage that was doomed from the beginning anyway. Barney pursues Miriam throughout the course of his short marriage, much to her horror, but they finally get together almost immediately after he signs the divorce papers.

Eventually, they proceed to get married, have kids – the whole shebang. This is the happiest period of Barney’s life. But when their marriage hits a rough spot (his own fault, really, as he neglects his wife’s needs), he makes a huge mistake and has a one night stand. All hell breaks loose when his wife finds out. Thus, Barney descends into the worst phase of his life, for he has known real happiness and has lost it. But whether he can reclaim that happiness is the question the viewer is left to ponder. He continues to pursue his ex-wife in the same brazen manner he did while he was still married to another woman. Nothing stops or deters him, not even the onslaught of dementia. In one of the most eerie and moving parts in the movie, and of Giamatti’s performance, Barney proceeds to tear up his home in frustration because he is unable to remember Miriam’s phone number. He is stopped by his daughter, played coolly and sweetly by Anna Hopkins.

This is not to say that Barney’s Version is a sob-fest. His story frequently tiptoes the fine line between tragedy and humor. The best example of this is when his father dies while having sex with a prostitute. Wavering between sadness and shock, Barney takes his father’s hand and, before he knows it, bursts into hysterical laughter.

Barney should be the character we love to hate and look down upon, but he is not, thanks to Giamatti’s brilliant portrayal of a self-sabotaging slacker. Barney is, in a sense, a vision of the self-destructive side in all of us, the part of ourselves that ruins our opportunities and digs our own grave. There is a Barney within all of us, whether we do not take care of ourselves, whether we are stuck in an unfulfilling job, or whether we royally mess up the love of our life. This is what makes Barney’s Version a universal tale. It is the story of a man who has no one to blame for his troubles but himself.

Barney’s Version opens Dec. 17 in New York and Los Angeles.



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