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Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011

Barney’s Version

Paul Giamatti’s bittersweet comedy

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Paul Giamatti won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a comedy for his lead role in Barney’s Version, but the film is a lemony comedy, more bitter than sweet—at least until the climax. It’s the story of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a successful TV producer with a mostly unsuccessful life. He has been anything but a ray of sunshine for most of the people he has known. Barney’s first wife committed suicide shortly after their marriage. He fell hopelessly in love with his third wife on the night of his second wedding. And he was accused of murdering his best friend in a case that became notorious.

Barney’s Version
begins with the protagonist at an especially low moment. It’s 3 a.m. and he’s stone drunk, trying to phone his third ex-wife but haranguing her new husband instead by claiming to be fingering nude photos of the woman they both love. But the photos in his hand show a woman fully clothed. Marooned in the luxurious loneliness of his Montreal condo, Barney has become the sharp-tongued terror of his firm, the well-named Totally Unnecessary Productions; his favorite bar is called Grumpy’s and he is hounded by a salacious book from the police detective who investigated his best friend’s death. Just when things can’t get worse, they get worse.

But before Barney reaches the denouement of his story, Barney’s Version doubles back to the crucial period of his life, his expatriate dolce vita in 1970s Rome. He could have bungled through the druggy haze as an amiable doofus, but his emotionally unhinged girlfriend Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) got pregnant, claimed him as the father, married him and overdosed after they fought, leaving a beautiful corpse sprawled on a cushioned divan like an odalisque in an Orientalist painting.

In the aftermath, the contours of his personality are revealed. Barney is incredibly callous and self-involved, yet Clara’s death left an ineradicable impression. One suspects that he fell instantly into deranged desire for the woman who would become his third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), because her mane of bright hair reminded him of Clara. It was a long and obnoxious stalker’s courtship, conducted while unhappily married to “the Second Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver), and in the film’s one improbable twist, he eventually conquers Miriam’s heart. Even then, he seems obsessed with his image of her rather than the person she really is.

Comedy? There is humor in Barney’s prickly relationship with his Jewish heritage and in his single-minded pursuit of Miriam. He’s a jerk, and jerks can be funny. But what might have read as outrageous satire on the pages of the Mordecai Richler novel upon which the film is based translates on screen as the unbearable sadness of a life misspent. The Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack were perfectly chosen. It’s a measure of Giamatti’s scope that he can eventually make us feel sorry for—and even sympathetic with—his often insufferable character. Barney’s Version opens in Milwaukee on Feb. 1