Barney's Version (Canada, 2011, Richard Lewis)
There's lots to like about Barney's Version but not enough to make it worth caring about. Monica read the novel back when it came out but remembers it well enough to inform me that a big weakness of the film is its plot downgrading of the murder mystery and concentration on the love story. Apparently the book balances the two of these very well.
What is more - and this is probably the heart of the matter - Richler's stylistic achievement was to accurately and movingly present the voice of a narrator speaking with Alzheimers disease. So the protagonist's "version" is emotionally fascinating and ethically problematic, the historical facts coming as they do from a sympathetic but unreliable source of information. Clearly, the film does not even begin to capture this artistry.
It also has to be said - and I hate to have to say it because I really respect his work here and elsewhere - Giamatti is not right for the role. This might seem to be because he is not a Jew. Monica expressed this view. It is not my view, however, and I appreciate that the actor did not adopt stereotypical schtick mannerisms and cliche Yiddish expressions to sell himself as Hebrew.
In fact, he creates a real, complex person and not some stock figure and this shows yet again what a fine character actor he is. Yet, the portrayal fails to deliver that special spark. Sex appeal, charisma, charming wit; whatever it is, it's missing. So unlike Dreyfuss as Duddy, Giamatti as Barney is just not attractive enough to care about, really care about. This undermines the whole show.
Had a few good laughs, nonetheless, and I couldn't help enjoying Hoffman, who does have that special something - duh! - that just makes him light up the screen effortlessly.
I had a slightly more positive reaction to the film, as I both enjoyed the film and cared enough about the people in it to recommend it. However, before digging into the areas of our disagreement, let me get our areas on concurrence on record. The film doesn't quite pull off the transition of the titular character from cogent narrator to dementia victim. And so, while I felt for Giamatti's character (and enjoyed Giamatti's performance, and felt he was up to the challenge, which you felt was lacking because the man lacks the charisma or sex appeal to make him believably appealing), the nuanced sense of Richler's engagement of the whole narrative (un)reliability question does not come through on screen. Rather, we are presented with two aspects of the story--the pre- and post-Alzheimer's figure--as if there were a clear demarcation between the two, instead of a gradual movement from one to the other, which should necessarily cast into doubt much of what we have come to assume is a factual, if necessarily subjective, version of events. As you say, we like Barney, but can we trust him? The film doesn't really grapple much with these sorts of ambiguities, and is lesser for it.
That said, I really dug the way that Barney's story played out on screen, largely because the actors in question, particularly Giamatti and Hoffman, were so much fun, and they were tied to a narrative that never flagged. Indeed, there is sometimes such a feeling of narrative propulsion, that you'd wish that the director Lewis would apply the breaks from time to time so that we could sit with some of the finer moments in the film. Also, while you think that the downgrading of the murder mystery may have been a weakness in the film, all I can say is that any storyline that ends with a twist straight out of an urban legend is one that I could do with less, not more of.
All said, Barney's Version may have suffered from a few flaws do to its overly ambitious scope and underdeveloped narrative nuance, but overall I found it a satisfying experience.
Here's the trailer for Barney's Version:
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