By Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Richard J. Lewis, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Barney Panofsky, the protagonist of Barney’s Version, is, in a word, incorrigible. A derailed-wedding-party scene near the beginning of this adaptation of the late Québécois novelist Mordecai Richler’s last novel, written by Michael Konyves and directed by TV veteran Richard J. Lewis, hammers this fact home most forcefully. Getting sloppily drunk in the midst of his increasingly disapproving new in-laws, Barney (Paul Giamatti, in Duplicity hair-trigger-temper mode throughout) spends the reception for his second wedding, to a well-to-do harpy (Minnie Driver), trying to avoid the obligatory chair-hoisting festivities so he can follow the progress of a pivotal hockey game. (Barney’s hockey fandom is one of a handful of persistent reminders that this film takes place in Montreal.) He finishes the night by pursuing a mysterious guest at the wedding (Rosamund Pike) all the way to her departing train, where she impresses him further by offering coolly practical demurrals to his professions of love at first sight while casually putting down her mass-market paperback copy of Saul Bellow’s Herzog—also presumably reaffirming the literary territory Lewis and Konyves intend to cover, as Richler himself is often grouped with American titans Philip Roth and Bellow as a chronicler of irrepressible Jewish masculinity. It should be added that during this entire sequence Barney has on his person the pistol that his retired-cop father, Izzy Panofsky (Dustin Hoffman), has given him as a wedding present.
It sounds like proudly madcap indie quirk, but it isn’t quite that. It is something that’s occasionally altogether bracing, and Barney’s Version is at its best when, as in the above described wedding scene, its main character’s incorrigibility seems to have permeated his entire surroundings. More intimate scenes, though, tend to blur into one another—especially odd given the pinpoint particularity of the Jews-in-Montreal milieu. The 132-minute film feels both distended and restless, constantly in search of a purpose beyond merely paying tribute to the source material. Lofty literary references, among them Bellow and Heine, carry over—presumably some of them from Richler’s book—but Barney’s Version, with its embedding of probably-worked-better-on-the-page epiphanies in a framework of decades-spanning retrospection, recalls above all else Rebecca Miller’s middling 2009 self-adaptation The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which, also like the new film, explores the early roots of later-life crises. Additionally, both films rely too heavily on erratic casting to grab the viewer’s attention.
Barney’s Version starts out like a murder mystery, misleading the viewer, likely intentionally, as to what exactly Barney is prepared to give his “version” of. A just-released book by a police detective (Mark Addy) implicates Barney in the murder of his own former best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), a smack-addict author who vanished one summer at Barney’s idyllic lake house. The case remains officially unsolved due to lack of evidence, leaving Barney free to drink and fume and produce a self-consciously trashy Mountie-themed soap opera under the auspices of his Totally Unnecessary Productions. Boogie’s disappearance provides the film with bookends—the release of the detective’s solved-mystery screed nudges Barney down memory lane, and it caps his long and winding trip with something like a surprise ending—but in the intervening action it soon gets lost under a heap of other events and concerns, primarily marriages, of which there are three. The opening invocation of a conventional murder plot increasingly seems a deliberate tease, a way for Lewis and Konyves, presumably both longtime fans of Richler’s novel, to slyly incorporate into the fabric of their adaptation the knowing schlock of the serial narratives produced by their own protagonist—or perhaps just a means for them to excuse the formlessness of their film, by showing that they tried a genre approach and it didn’t take, a rather lazy feint.
Whatever the case, the path that Barney’s Version subsequently cuts is meandering. Barney first recalls his creative-expat days in Rome, when he was married to his unstable (and unfaithful) first wife, the “true-blue shiksa” Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), and the budding novelist Boogie practically reeled off manuscripts. Clara abruptly commits suicide, precipitating Barney’s mature phase, as it were. Back in Canada he gets married again, to Driver’s character. She’s considerably less bohemian than Barney’s first wife, but she also winds up cuckolding him—with Boogie, no less, as he’s attempting to detox at chez Panofsky. Barney welcomes this instance of infidelity as an opportunity to escape an undesirable situation, as he’s long been ruthlessly courting the less nagging Miriam (Pike) on the side with phone calls and flowers; Miriam is the poised and intelligent woman who makes it okay for there to be a running joke about Driver’s anti-intellectual shrew (the credits list her only as “2nd Mrs. P”) having a master’s degree. With his second wife out of the picture, Barney eventually marries Miriam, and has two kids with her, settling down with what appears to be some degree of contentment. But, of course, Barney is incorrigible…
Barney’s Version only grows more diffuse, less focused, as it goes along. In the film’s present-day sections, the increasingly forgetful Barney turns out to be stricken with Alzheimer’s. (As the Korean director Lee Chang-dong does in his recent Poetry, the filmmakers here make a point of showing that the nouns depart before all else; the first noun to go here, though, is “Mercedes.”) The advance of the disease is marked with several squirm-inducing scenes (in one, Barney finds himself unable to recall Miriam’s phone number, and so he proceeds to trash his own apartment), but its introduction into the scenario seems meant to add an element of universalist tragedy to Barney’s very particular recollections: No matter how insufferable he’s been throughout the course of his life, it’s all slipping away from him, as it does for us all. And so as Barney rages against his own decline, the movie itself seems to go soft. This is a disappointing final retreat from the film’s most remarkable aspect, its irascibility, and it serves to underscore Barney’s Version’s own perpetual identity crisis.