A Sentimental Journey: Barney’s Version

A Sentimental Journey: Barney’s Version

Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Release date: January 28th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 132 minutes

Director: Richard J. Lewis

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Mark Addy, Bruce Greenwood, Saul Rubinek, Jake Hoffman, Cle Bennett, Rachelle Lefevre

A celebration of the lives of its author and protagonist alike, Barney’s Version is Richard J. Lewis’ fondly assembled adaptation of Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last novel, published in 1996. The eponymous character, played with heroic, meticulous pathos by a somewhat typecast Paul Giamatti (and what a charming type he represents indeed), is the cantankerous outsider, straight out of Woody Allen’s middle period, though less self-conscious and ironised.

A caustic rogue and an incorrigible romantic, Barney Panofsky’s Falstaffian vitiation might be measured in cigar smoke and whiskey. A drinking game deadly even to the veteran dipso himself could well be fashioned from the first half an hour of the film alone, such is the quantity of Macallan and Glenlivet put away by any and every character worthy of the audience’s sympathies. But despite his drunkenness, selfishness and carelessness, Barney is nevertheless rarely far from our affection as the helpless wounded little boy, blundering with an oddly congenial mix of the heinous and blameless towards misery again. And, just once or twice, joy.

Barney’s Version

Like the 2008 Palme d’Or nominated Synecdoche, New York, Barney’s Version attempts to represent a man’s life over decades; but unlike both its source text and Synecdoche, it doesn’t question the truthfulness of the account. It is satisfied merely to hint at the question of reliable narration with the title and Barney’s incipient memory disorder. The problem with this however is that the title quite plainly announces the origin of the Version: it is specifically Barney’s, and yet there are moments when the narrative exceeds the compass of Barney’s experience.

This little rupture between concept and execution has a reason though: the autobiographical quality of the source text, and the fact that Richler died during the twelve years in which the film was produced, has emotionally aligned the identities of author and character (it is dedicated to the former); and this identification has altered the mood of the adaptation – narrowing the manifold perspective to the monologic sentimentality of a death’s-eye-view. Some will say it’s mawkish; and that impression is not helped by the questionable Wuthering Heights-style pay-out at the end. But I’m rather susceptible to the death’s-eye-view sentimentality, so it worked for me.


Oh, did I mention it’s funny? Oy, very funny indeed. Humour is perhaps what Barney’s Version does best; and it goes some way to counterpoising, or enriching, the memorial solemnity. The biggest laugh was supplied by the brilliant Dustin Hoffman, as Barney’s ingenuously rakish Pa; and if I tell you the joke now, it will only extend your enjoyment by savouring his majestic delivery:

FATHER-IN-LAW : Are you saying you were gratuitously violent with suspected felons?

IZZY: Gratuitously? I ain’t gonna work for free.

And it’s with the attitude that delivers this kind of defensive retort that Barney, too, garrisons himself against the intractable world. Surviving three marriages, lurking anti-Semitism, a murder charge, and the hypocrisies of a lucrative career as the purveyor of asinine TV (his company is called “Totally Unnecessary Productions”), he has the audacity and guile – the hutzpah, as his father might say – of a picaresque antihero, wriggling his way into and out of both trouble and advantage.

But whilst these several threads of plot, as well as its thirty-year span, allow Paul Giamatti to exercise his talents with a character development far more extensive than most films can support, it does feel somewhat congested and uneven at times. The murder mystery, for example, is so underdeveloped that its resolution has almost no effect on the emotional pitch of the film whatsoever. But perhaps this is a small price to pay for such a wondrous and coherent life performance.


Something that concerned me, and is likely to be identified by others as a shortcoming, is what could be regarded as latent sexism in female characterisation. This is a film principally about a man, yes, fine; but the women who feature are all inordinately stereotyped adjuncts to Barney’s chronicle: the first wife, a crazy adulterous bohemian, played by Rachelle Lefevre; the second, Minnie Driver, a rich, vapid philistine; and the third a perfect wish-fulfilment Madonna, beautiful, maternal and divinely magnanimous, handled with sensitivity by Rosamund Pike.

The issue has in fact already been brought up, and rejected, at a press conference. And I suppose it could be argued that this – and the characterisation of Boogie, Barney’s best friend, a poetic hedonist turned heroin addict who might be one of those “best minds of a generation destroyed by madness” that Ginsberg Howled about – lifts the story out of its particularity, hinting at something universal that it means to touch by unobtrusive allegory. In this case, caricature and archetype may be legitimate. It is, after all, a tale of perfectly impossible and impossibly perfect love. “I cannot believe that this really happens!” gasps Barney, immediately infatuated, on meeting his third wife at his second wedding. And indeed, life rarely appears this beautiful but in representation.

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