Of the few movies I really wanted to see but missed at this year's past Toronto International Film Festival, Barney's Version is the one that I regretted the most. It was one of the few shining examples of Canadian film on display at the festival (and was anchored by the fact that it was based off the critically acclaimed final novel by Canadian literary icon Mordecai Richler), but apparently I was not the only one aiming to see it. And after seeing the final film nearly five months later, I can see why.
Barney (Paul Giamatti) is an aging television producer, divorced and comforted only by his cigars and rash drinking habits. As a new book is released detailing some sordid details of an event Barney would rather forget, he starts to look back on his life and all the many mistakes he made. And after three failed marriages, "many" may not be the apt word to describe them.
I had read Barney's Version as a forced assignment in my final year of high school, and never finished it cover to cover. It was dense, lengthy, rambled for pages on end, and just did not feel satisfyingly cohesive. It was punctuated throughout with hilarity, tragedy, and sorrow, but never wallowed in it. You could practically smell the detail of the characters wafting off each page. And as the title suggests, it was the story of Barney's life, as told by Barney. It was a somewhat enjoyable book, but having almost failed the assignment, my memories of it are rather tarnished.
To my delight, this is not how the movie feels at all.
As opposed to a literal page to screen translation, Michael Konyves has instead whittled and simplified the narrative down to the basics. He changes, updates and moves a few things around, and loses others completely. While this may outrage some fans of the book, it makes the film all the easier to digest. It never gets lost in what it is trying to say, and never falls into any of the densely boring traps the novel set out for itself. The odd and intimate details of each character are still here (more so from the principal cast than the supporting players), as is the snappy and hilarious dialogue. And for the entire running time, the film stays in Richler's unique voice, never straying into unknown or lesser territory in any instance. For someone who has previously worked mainly in television, this is an excellent achievement and one that makes me look forward to Konyves future projects.
As a Canadian myself, it pains me to note that the majority of films I see are of foreign creation. So it was with great surprise that Barney's Version, a Canadian film, looked and felt just as good as any film coming out of the likes of the United States. The sweeping decades-long set design, costumes, makeup and soundtrack are all handled excellently as well. The little quips about Montreal and Canadian life are great, as are the small blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos by some of the country's most famous auteurs. And unlike so many Canadian-made films, Barney's Version stays true to the nation of its birth but never force feeds Canadiana down the audience's throats. This of course, is a small quip that may not be noticed in the slightest by most audiences. But it is one that should be duly noted for all future Canadian productions nonetheless.
As Barney, Giamatti is stunning and perfect as always. He is one of the most talented and underrated character actors of his generation, and he continues to prove his worth and excellence here. Barney's life is an emotional roller-coaster, and Giamatti gives his all to make the audience really feel for this pathetic, misguided, adolescent shell of a man. It reminded me a lot of his work in Sideways, and is likely his strongest work to date. No matter what emotion or word he is trying to convey, you will hang on every sound and look. He just keeps getting better with each new year, each new role. This is not quite the inspired brilliance of Colin Firth in The King's Speech, or the emotional powerhouse of James Franco in 127 Hours, but it is yet another example of how criminally overlooked he is come award season.
The rest of the cast is fairly solid, no matter their screen time. Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and especially Rosamund Pike are all excellent as Barney's wives, as is Scott Speedman as his best friend Boogie. But they are all overshadowed by Dustin Hoffman in the role of Barney's father Izzy. He steals the show from just about everyone, providing more gusto and depth than he has in years. And it does not hurt that he has the most hilariously devastating moment in the entire film.
If I have to hold anything against the film at all, it is in the fact that it loses its momentum much too soon. The entire first half of the film almost feels like whiplash from how fast-paced it moves along. But once the second half comes, and the emotional weight of the movie kicks into gear, it slows down a bit too hard. It never becomes boring, and never drags its heels like the book does, but it just lacks the power and finesse of everything that comes before it. The zest and drive of the film are always there, but with how much has been altered and changed to make the film more accessible to audiences, I think they could have done a bit more to keep the film going for its entire 132-minute running time.
Barney's Version is a revelation of a film, packed with a great story, excellent dialogue and even better performances. This is one of the unsung best films of the year, and one that has and will continue to be criminally overlooked.