Directed by Richard J. Lewis
(Serendipity Point Films)
If you’ve recently forgotten exactly where you last parked your car — as I have — then Barney’s Version will give that lapse a new ominous edge. In the film, based on Mordecai Richler’s Giller Prize-winning novel of the same title, the 67-year-old protagonist Barney Panofsky loses his car, although it is sitting safely in his reserved spot in the company parking lot. It’s a sign that his hyperactive intelligence is slowing to a stop in the morass of Alzheimer’s disease.
As his mind unravels, Barney, a Montreal producer of sleazy sitcoms, embarks on an uncharacteristic voyage of self-discovery. Through flashbacks, we see him in his bohemian days in 1970s Rome, at his wedding to a vapid, affluent Jewish princess (played energetically by Minnie Driver, who wrings every cliché from her role), and through his courtship of and eventual estrangement from the true love of his life, the ethereal Miriam (Rosamund Pike). As the title character, Paul Giamatti convincingly transforms himself from a hirsute youth into a balding, paunchy sexagenarian, a masterful turn that earned him a Golden Globe Award for best actor in a comedy or musical.
Ironically, Barney’s depleted brainpower probably aids his project of self-examination. Unable to simply rationalize away his errors, he gives us a version of his life perhaps closer to the truth than most of us are able to reach.
The truth cannot be a comfort to him. His youth was mostly dissolute. His prime was marked by three failed marriages and a thoroughly trivial career. His old age is a haze of cigar smoke and single-malt scotch, both consumed in lonely excess. But the darkest cloud hanging over Barney is the unsolved disappearance of his one-time best friend, whom, in the eyes of an obsessed detective, Barney had motive and opportunity to murder, and a literal smoking gun. Barney, stupefied by drink at the time, can’t remember what happened. Could he really be a serial spouse, professional bottom-feeder and a killer?
It seems possible, and yet, if Barney were simply a despicable lout, why do we care about his belated soul searching? It is the film’s genius to make Giamatti’s Barney principled, generous and truthful at crucial turning points, so that we have a wholly human, if often infuriating, character to engage. In the end, a last flash of remembered reality, glimpsed through the deepening fog of dementia, convinces us that our empathy has been earned.
Richard Wright is a Toronto writer.
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