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Review: Barney's Version

By James Beale

March 26, 2011

"Barney's Version" has the unenviable task of summing up a man's life in 132 minutes. It is filled with life and energy through both its performances and the plot, but nothing quite adds up by the end.

An adaptation of Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel, the film jumps around the titular character's life, from present day to 1974. The film loosely has a reason for telling this story: a detective has published a book about a murder Barney supposedly committed.

Through his memories, Barney tries to vindicate himself from many of the mistakes he made in his life. We see his experiences in Rome with his first wife and Montreal with his second wife. He meets his third wife at his reception with the second wife, and their love story is a high point for the film. He also produces an awful Canadian television show, which is a source for many of the film's best laughs.

The plot is a consistent boon, never becoming boring while not becoming sensational either. Barney's story is worth telling, but it's something you've seen before.

None of these are spoilers - the destination isn't as important as the journey, which makes the film's ending even more devastating. A surprise in the final act, foreshadowed throughout the film, attempts to make Barney a tragic figure. 

But it ultimately doesn't work, and a continual question throughout the film is: how does he make these beautiful women marry him? A question the film is willing to answer is, "How will Barney mess this up?" Unfortunately, there seem to be no answers to the former.

Barney is an alcoholic, chain smokes cigars, and doesn't connect with friends. There are glimpses, such as when he falls in love at first sight (he exclaims, "This actually happens!"), that tries to explain this, but there aren't many full scenes that show Barney as a solidly good individual. 

He seems to be an exhausting person to know, an even more Jewish Larry David. Barney's father (Dustin Hoffman) seems more endearing than tiring, but his son never hits that balance.

For example, Barney's third wife (Rosamund Pike) seems to be his great love - he chases her for years, and eventually they have two successful children. Still, he never values her, going to bars and getting drunk while she's experiencing major career moments.

The book, which was written in first person as a type of memoir, delved into Barney's head and his rationale for these decisions. The film only observes Barney from the outside, leaving the viewer to judge Barney mostly on his innate character flaws.

The only thing saving Barney is Paul Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. He doesn't exaggerate Barney's good or bad qualities - he's simply really involved into the character, filling the screen with energy every time he's on it.

"Barney's Version" is a good film, one that is filled with life and its big and little moments. But in its final 30 minutes, characters stop being comic figures and begin to progress to tragic ones.

Perhaps the film is saying that life is hard and Barney doesn't deserve empathy. But by the final shot, the film seems to love Barney, even though there aren't many good reasons to.

3/4 stars

"Barney's Version" is playing at The Lyric from March 26 to March 31.

Comments (2)

Miriam knew what she was getting into by marrying Barney, as he was extremely drunk at their first two meetings. But she had needs and he was so obsessed with her that she caved. "Have I ever given up when it comes to you?" And sure enough, they'll spend eternity together. A truly wonderful, tragic, romantic film.

Lew | March 28, 2011 1:17 AM

I think one really positive memory from their marriage would've really bolstered the film in my eyes, but I just can't find any reason they would stay together, unless she was just utterly charmed by being beaten down by him for so long. Miriam was such a strong, solid individual, so it didn't really seem like she absolutely needed him. Surely there's another reason other than wanting sex and him being a crazy machine. If she was a little less perfect, maybe I can buy it. Was Barney, the drunk guy who kept hitting on her while he was married, really her best choice? What was wrong with her?

I'm conflicted about this, but I think true love as a motivator in a relationship is a little weak, and we need to at least see it in action (apart from the first date in the park). If the film's point about domestication is that it beats down true love over time, then the final shot doesn't make sense.

I really did like the film, and it's probably better than its rating here, but I felt the main relationship was incongruous at best. It's feel-good, for sure, but it didn't all add up for me.

James | March 28, 2011 8:36 AM