At the Arthouse
Don't read this if you're easily offended: Inside Paul Giamatti's Barney life ofdebauchery
Editor's note: This review contains plot spoilers. Only read if you dare.
It’s not often I get snookered by a movie poster, but the image on the Barney’s Version ad got the best of me. It shows a bearded Paul Giamatti being lectured by a finger-pointing — and very happy looking — Dustin Hoffman. Above the two stars you see the faces of three smiling, beautiful women.
Looks like a romantic comedy. Certainly a comedy of some kind, as it’s based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, the bard of the Montreal Jews, who loved to show his characters in all their gross and embarrassing and hungry humanity.
So I was surprised when the film turns out to be a sad study in a man’s decline, and his final descent into what appears to be Alzheimer’s. I’m glad the poster offered a sunnier image, otherwise I might have missed a very touching movie, of the “kind that they don’t make anymore” variety. And I would’ve missed Giamatti’s gripping performance, and Hoffman’s lustily comic turn, his best role in ages.
This is a hard film to summarize, as it sprawls far and wide. It recounts Barney’s life in the arts, as it were, as he evolves from a quasi-bohemian, would-be artiste in Rome, to an unapologetic producer of trash television in Montreal.
Along the way, he gets married three times, once to a tragic artist, once to a Jewish princess (Minnie Driver), and once to Miriam, the woman of his dreams (Rosamund Pike). He also manages to become a suspect in the murder of an old writer friend from back Rome (Scott Speedman), all the while drinking a lot of Scotch, chain-smoking Cuban cigars and following the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, often all at the same time.
The movie doesn’t hang together all that well, and I suspect that if I’d read the book I’d find it pretty dissatisfying. For example, the thread that deals with Barney being a suspect in the murder of a good friend ought to shadow the entire film, but here it seems like an afterthought, and could have been omitted without any real loss.
That’s because the film is really just a character study. Giamatti’s Barney is a deeply flawed man who somehow manages to win a woman, Miriam, who gives him much more than he really deserves. His tragedy, if that’s not too grand a word, is that his characters flaws (the aforementioned whiskey, hockey and cigars) keep him from expressing what seems to be his real love for her. Fool that he is, he runs the good woman off.
Here, Alzheimer’s offers a partial compensation. At some point he can’t remember that she’s left him and married a man he despises. So he buys a burial plot for two and engraves her name on the tombstone.
The film offers Giamatti perhaps the juiciest role of his career, and he gnaws it all the way down to the bone. This is an easy film to find fault with — it is quite sentimental — but because of its performances it’s also easy to connect to.