Sony // 2010 // 134 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 22nd, 2011
First he got married. Then he got married again. Then he met the love of his life.
"I'm just gonna keep talking here, 'cause I'm afraid that if I stop there's gonna be a pause or a break and you're gonna say 'It's getting late' or 'I should get going', and I'm not ready for that to happen. I don't want that to happen. Ever."
Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) is a Canadian television producer who has lived what some might call a full life. We are first introduced to him during the later years of his life, and are given two important facts about him. First, a book has just been published that claims to offer insider details on a murder that Barney supposedly committed many years ago (though he was never officially charged at any point). Second, we learn that Barney is divorced, has two grown children and would seemingly do anything to get his wife back. Over the course of the film, we follow Barney through three decades of his life and explore the events that have brought him to this point.
In all honesty, Barney isn't a particularly likable character. In fact, he's flat-out loathsome at times and engages in all sorts of behavior that qualifies as genuinely reprehensible. And yet, because he is played with such empathy and depth of feeling by Paul Giamatti, we cannot help but feel badly for him. One senses Barney is a well-intentioned man whose good intentions are frequently being bludgeoned to death by the demon on his other shoulder. We feel for him because we sense that he is a man eternally doomed to engage in behavior that will increase his own unhappiness.
The first act of Barney's adult life is filled with one misery after another; he looks constantly in need of a drink (even though he usually has one in his hand). Even so, during this period Barney is working towards something better, no matter it costs him in the present. At long last, Barney reaches the second act, which is filled with seemingly endless joy and contentment. It's as close to a fairy tale ending as a man like Barney could ever hope for. Alas, there is a third act ahead of him, one filled with pain, heartache, anger and regret. Witnessing Barney's suffering during the first act of his life often takes on surprisingly funny shades, while witnessing his suffering during the third is almost unbearable. As Woody Allen once said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." If it seems as if the second act zips by at an alarming speed, well, time flies when you're having fun.
In case you haven't read the acclaimed novel upon which the film is based (I must confess that I haven't), I don't want to spoil the details of the journey Barney takes. What I've told you thus far is stuff that's revealed very early on in the film; we know what happens but there is immense suspense in learning how it happened. There is tension during the early scenes, as we know that a certain character must die and we don't yet know whether Barney will be the one responsible. There is a building sense of horror in the later scenes, as we know Barney's one beautiful relationship (presented with such affecting warmth in the film) must come crumbling down sooner or later.
I remain amazed at what a distinctive screen presence Giamatti has and how much he brings to each role that isn't on the page. He is a master at depicting disheveled, broken-hearted men who feel like losers no matter how much success they have actually attained (he even achieved this when playing John Adams). This film might have seemed an unforgiving cautionary tale with someone else in the role, but Giamatti draws out the raw humanity of the story. The film cruises quickly between broad comedy and stark tragedy, and Giamatti handles every tonal shift with perfection. His Golden Globe nomination for the role was certainly deserved.
However, Giamatti is surrounded by a host of talented supporting players who each brings something special to the table. The best of these is Dustin Hoffman, who hits such delightful comic notes in his role as Barney's amusingly oblivious father ("This is wonderful chicken," he remarks while munching on fish at the home of Barney's wealthy in-laws). In Hoffman's performance we see hints of Barney's own strengths and weaknesses, though the father seems far less troubled by his personal problems than the son. Rosamund Pike (An Education) also does splendid work as the one true love of Barney's life. She feels for him, but this seems fueled as much by pity as by desire. Pike hits some interesting notes as she essays what is essentially a decades-long act of kindness.
Impressing in even smaller roles: a confused Minnie Driver (The Riches) as Barney's second wife, an impossibly handsome and hilariously pretentious Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek (2009)) as a man Barney feels more than a little threatened by, Mark Addy (Game of Thrones) as an overbearing detective and Scott Speedman (The Strangers) as one of Barney's close friends. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover fun cameos by Canadian directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan (playing unenthusiastic directors of Barney's awful TV soap opera).
Barney's Version arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The film spans several decades and this hi-def transfer allows the viewer to fully appreciate the subtle production design and makeup work done during the assorted periods of Barney's life. Detail is excellent throughout, blacks are deep and inky, contrast is impressive and a warm layer of natural grain has been left intact. This is a sharp-looking movie. Audio is sturdy, with a well-chosen blend of familiar but unpredictable pop tunes easing us through the non-linear structure and dialogue coming through with clarity. Crowd scenes and party scenes offer impressively immersive sound design, too. The score comes through with strength, but does veer into syrupy territory a bit too frequently. Extras include a commentary with Lewis, producer Robert Lantos and writer Michael Konyves, a Q&A session with Giamatti and Annette Insdorf, some red carpet footage, an interview with novelist Mordecai Richler and an EPK-style featurette called "Behind the Scenes of Barney's Version." You also get a DVD copy of the film.
Emotionally involving, frequently entertaining and superbly acted, Barney's Version is well worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy