"Barney is paunchy, balding, bearded, and rude."
In Barney's Version, the gifted Paul Giamatti turns the neat trick of making Barney Panofsky's unmemorable life a memorable one. Barney, who is paunchy, bearded, balding, and rude, drinks his way through two marriages and a TV production job in Canada while caring nothing about the women or the work. Mrs. Panofsky #1 took leave of this life when Barney discovered their baby wasn't his; Mrs. Panofsky #2 bored him unto misery with her incessant self-absorption. All this happens by way of showing us that Barney is a pathetic loser and that it's all his own fault.
Just as we are beginning to wonder how this uninteresting guy can sustain the full length of a movie, he meets, at his own wedding reception, a saint. She is Miriam (a terrific Rosamund Pike). Barney leaves the reception and races to the station to declare his love to the departing Miriam who, true to her code, rejects the married man. This is a woman pure to the core. Speaking of values, and we might as well for a minute, whatever your own set of core values, or even your peripheral ones, it is unlikely that you share a shred of the ones that motivate Barney. Until later that is, when as a divorced man, he finds Miriam again and marries her.
Gradually, in every scene they share, Barney's love for Miriam ignites a mite, but just a mite, of decency within him, though he never stops being rude, drinking, or smoking cigars. And when his wife needs his support, he is likely to be in a bar watching a hockey game (This is Canada, after all). What does a beautiful woman who is honest, direct, loyal, and thoughtful see in this guy? Who knows what women love, but love him she does. Together, they have a son and a daughter. As in so many marriages, when the kids grow up and leave, these parents look at each other and one asks, "Is this all that's left?" Miriam goes back to work to fill the void.
The movie is based on a highly regarded novel by Canadian author Mordecai Richler and it is brought to full life by a cast that creates interesting characters. In keeping with Barney's early bad taste, his best friend Boogie is wasted on alcohol and drugs. His second wife is Minnie Driver's delicious interpretation of a Jewish Princess. His son Jake Hoffman displays acting chops inherited from his grandfather Dustin, who in a truly appealing performance, plays Barneys father, Izzy Panofsky. At the center of it all is Paul Giamatti's vulnerable Barney who convinces us that his ready tears and laughter bubble up from all his confusing choices. We wonder about what his life might have been had he not been such a jerk early on. As it is, he finds a measure of grace at the end of a life not well lived. The actors are the reason to see this one.
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