Barney’s Version, directed by Richard J Lewis, is like a generous portion of a gooey cake that you had great fun making and it shows – the icing might have slipped a little but it tastes fantastic! It’s a film-geek’s dream, too, with Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake playing his onscreen grandson Michael, cameos from Atom Egoyan and David Cronenburg and, for a British audience, a role for Mark Addy. (Although shamefully I failed to spot any of them until the credits.)
The film shares with us the memories of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a Montreal Jew and head of TV company ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’. Precisely, it does this at the point he’s starting to lose his memory through Alzheimers. If it’s a comedy then it’s one at which I wept so, like Billy Wilder films, it’s one of the better kind. Tellingly, both moments Barney succumbs to hysterical laughter (once when he asks Miriam, a female guest he’s just met at his own wedding, to run away with him, and once at his father’s death) are deeply serious. Ultimately, both Barney and the film possess a finely honed sense of the ridiculous and a refusal to take themselves too seriously.
Paul Giamatti’s Golden Globe (for best performance by an actor in a comedy or musical) is well earned and the entire cast are a joy to watch. As Dana Stevens comments in an excellent review in Slate: ‘Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, and even Scott Speedman…all make hay from their tiny roles. Taken as a whole, the movie’s structure is lumpen, but scene by scene, it’s full of vivid moments between actors…The script doesn’t need to convince us that the prickly and incorrigible Barney Panofsky is, in the end, someone worth caring about. Paul Giamatti’s performance already did.’
It’s also true, however, that the narrative isn’t all it might be. Much has been made of the difficulty of bringing Mordecai Richler’s novel to the screen and, yes, the film is big, sprawling and slightly messy and, at over two hours, could have lost a subplot or two. But Stevens’ description of a ‘galumphing movie that nonetheless provides a bracing jolt of pure, uncut Giamatti’ provides the clue to its charm. Barney’s Version is hugely infectious and entertaining. It also has a fabulous soundtrack, with Donovan fast-tracking us back to the sixties and (this being Canada-fest) a double-bill of Leonard Cohen.
The only real flaw is that, in a film about memory (and its loss), the structure wasn’t more interesting – the flashbacks do start to pale. And apparently the novel (now at the top of my reading list) takes a more playful, teasing approach to how much memory can be trusted. But whether launching himself into bed wearing a proud paunch and jaunty boxer shorts, or wiggling a dance after a successful call to Miriam, you can’t help but warm to Barney. And, in a trick that must draw our attention to the moment’s transience, his leap into bed is frozen mid-air: from good to bad and back again, life keeps moving. We know, even without the benefit of the opening scene, that when Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), comments on his son’s domestic happiness with ‘you did good boychick’, it’s already an elegy.
It’s this Mickey Finn, slipped into the pure cocktail of joie de vivre, that elevates Barney’s Version to brilliance. For, if memories provide our identities, what happens when we start to lose them? And how reliable are they – and particularly their recording ? How far can the lettering on a gravestone, or the book written by the cop convinced Barney killed his best friend, be trusted? The film seems finally to suggest we – and life itself – are a glittering kaleidoscope of perspectives.