By Marc Glassman
Richard J. Lewis, director; Robert Lantos, producer
Michael Konyves, script based on the novel by Mordecai Richler
Starring: Paul Giamatti (Barney Panofsky), Rosamund Pike (Miriam), Dustin Hoffman (Izzy Panofsky), Minnie Driver (the second Mrs. “P”), Rachelle Lefevre (Clara), Scott Speedman (“Boogie” Moscovitch), Bruce Greenwood (Blair)
Mordecai Richler, the author of Barney’s Version and a half-dozen other black comic masterpieces, was a wonderfully cantankerous individual, who seemed to be happiest when he was skewering those nearest to him. A Montreal Jew, this terrific writer made a career of satirizing his “chosen people.” Not stopping with the Jews, he took delight in ridiculing the politics and traditions of the Quebecois as well–for, among other things, mistreating the Montreal Jews.
Obviously, even the enemies of his enemies couldn’t be his friends. Or did the complex writer actually hate either of his “bête noirs”? Likely not: they just were his favourite targets. Richler’s real enemies were the phonies and hypocrites in any society or culture. But that has become more evident to critics and the public in the decade since he passed away–and can no longer offend anyone.
Now, Canada’s greatest producer Robert Lantos has brought to the screen a full-blooded, richly comic adaptation of Barney’s Version. It’s true to Richler’s vision of a man, who spends his life among remarkable people but can’t achieve greatness himself. He doesn’t see what others–his friends, lovers and foes–recognize: that he’s capable of much more than what he accomplishes in life.
In the film, Barney’s successes and failures hinge on one relationship, his third marriage to the elegant and sophisticated Miriam. He loves Miriam with a romantic affection that is endearing to see–but he isn’t capable of the fidelity necessary to keep such a marriage working for an entire life. And that is Barney’s great tragedy.
Paul Giamatti is wonderful as Barney: he brings the ribald, rude, raucous character to life. Matching him note for note is Dustin Hoffman as Izzy, his Dad, a lower class Jewish policeman, who loves to gamble, drink and spend time with his son. Also brilliant is Minnie Driver as the “second Mrs. P,” a harsh Richler caricature of a striving upwardly mobile woman, who is turned into a very funny character by the irrepressible actress.
Not quite as luminous as Lantos presumably thinks, Rosamund Pike is good but not fabulous as Miriam, the love of Barney’s life. It’s a weakness in a film that revolves around that key relationship. Still, Giamatti and Pike are pros, and they do their best, even if sparks don’t fly between them.
Barney’s Version is that rarity, a truly adult Canadian drama. Robert Lantos proves himself to be our David Selznick: a producer who is the real auteur of his films, and is only truly inspired by writers, not directors. (Think of Gone with the Wind, the original A Star is Born, A Tale of Two Cities and The Prisoner of Zenda–would anyone be able to name who directed those Selznick films?)
The language and the style of Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s greatest novelists, are evoked brilliantly throughout Barney’s Version. So is the old Anglo Montreal, particularly in the scenes set in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the old pub Grumpy’s. If this film is not 100% successful–if it is a bit too long and loses its satirical edge from time to time–that hardly diminishes Lantos’ achievement.
Barney’s Version should be seen and supported in Toronto and Montreal–and throughout Canada. This is Lantos’ and Richler’s Chanukah present, just in time for Christmas.