Thursday, April 7, 2011

Barney's Version Movie Review: Jewish Angst in Montreal

Paul Giamatti is an actor who throws himself into his roles, becoming completely absorbed by his characters. Without the looks and stature of a traditional leading man, he has built an impressive resume of characters including John Adams in the eponymous HBO mini-series and has been ruefully passed over for a Best Actor Oscar nomination twice. No, make that three times now.

In Barney’s Version he plays Barney Parnofsky, a television producer and faux intellectual from Montreal who recalls the past decades of his life after the release of an incriminating book by a retired detective that implicates him in a 20 year old missing persons case. It’s little surprise that Giamatti and the film missed out on the Oscar season (with the exception of a nod for makeup) because it was barely marketed, had no wide release until earlier this year and simply wasn’t put on the radar of enough Academy members. That’s a real shame because despite the film’s flaws, and they are many, it is more than deserving of both audience and critical attention.


The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis, with a screenplay by Michael Konyves based on the final book of Montreal native Mordecai Richler. I haven’t read the book, but the sense I get from what I’ve read about it is that the narrative point of view is a crucial element in the prose. The title comes from the fact that the whole story is told by Barney. In the novel he sets out to write his memoir as a counterpoint to the detective’s book. Due to Barney’s borderline alcoholism and his later development of Alzheimer’s this makes him an unreliable narrator.

I wonder if there may be something lost in the transfer from page to screen because a film inherently presents itself as realism – the idea that what you’re seeing on screen can be taken for granted as fact, as events as they actually happened in the world of the film. There is the occasional film that is able to present multiple truths as told from different perspectives – Kurosawa’s Rashomon being perhaps the most famous. But I’m not sure I can think of a successful film from the vantage point of an unreliable narrator. And I don’t mean an example like The Usual Suspects in which it turns out the narrator has been inventing details all along and this reveals itself in a shock ending. I’m interested in a story that is either from the beginning, or slowly revealed over time to be, explicitly suspect. Lewis doesn’t really make any effort to retain the feeling that the events we witness may not have actually happened as presented.

Normally I don’t care much about changes made from page to screen. Novels and films are completely different media with different goals, different ways of presenting character and story and different functional possibilities and mechanics. But it seems to me that the title suggests the possibility that another version of the story exists, but it lacks the evidence on screen.

The story is a character study more than anything. We first meet Barney as an embittered aging producer of a stale soap opera that trades in cheap double entendres. He makes it more than obvious he dislikes the show, but it has made him a success in the business. On this particular day he is perturbed b the haunting presence of Detective O’Hearne’s (Mark Addy) new book. O’Hearne also follows him to his preferred boozing haunt just to ask one more time where he hid the body. What follows is a series of flashbacks that fill in the gaps of his adult life.

The tale of his life begins in Rome in the 1960s where he lives a Bohemian lifestyle with his friends Leo (an Italian artist), Boogie (an American intellectual played by Scott Speedman) and Cedric. Barney’s engaged to be married in a shotgun wedding to one Clara Chambers, who is pregnant – the baby presumably belonging to Barney.

The film spends much of its running time sliding back and forth in tone, never really settling on either melodrama or black comedy. One particularly difficult moment comes when the screenplay glosses over a stillborn infant and what should be the terrible grief of the parents in order to develop characters and advance to the next plot point. It turns out, not so surprisingly, that the child belonged to one of Barney’s friends. The comedy that results from this news in the wake of the infant’s death is just crass.

From there the next few years are passed over until Barney is working in television in Montreal and he’s introduced to his second wife, played by Minnie Driver with all the steamroller gusto of the Jewish Princess her character is. She is the stereotypical castrating Jewish devil woman. She comes from a great deal of wealth and privilege and her father attempts to control not only Barney’s behavior, but Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman) as well. The bloom is off the rose before the wedding reception has even finished when his new wife (neither the book nor the film has the courtesy to give her a more defining moniker than “The 2nd Mrs. P.” reflecting Barney’s attitude toward her) forbids him to smoke and he meets the love of his life.

He pursues his dream woman to the train station, asking her to run away with him. Here’s where Giamatti shows the real difference between being in love and getting married and getting married because you’re in love. With his first wife we see little more than responsibility in his eyes. With the 2nd Mrs. P. we see he’s attracted to her and Giamatti makes us believe he loves her. But this is nothing compared to the sheer giddiness he exhibits before the lovely Miriam Grant.

Miriam, as played by the lovely Rosamund Pike, has the movie star good looks you need to convincingly portray a woman who could so easily catch Barney’s attention. Pike was gorgeous in An Education and though the glamour of that character has been stripped away, it’s impossible to hid her radiant beauty even behind the middle-aged makeup she wears late in the film. She glows in the late scenes and of course that’s the point – it’s necessary she be exquisite late in life so we can feel Barney’s pain at having lost her that much more profoundly – because he idealizes her.

Apparently Montreal has a history of virulent anti-Semitism. It’s clear this story doesn’t want to shy away from the subtle and not so subtle class warfare that exists between working class Jews and both Gentiles and Jews of the upper crust. Izzy is a victim of anti-Semitism from his fellow police officers (a fact we only hear about second-hand) and the parents of the 2nd Mrs. P. are incredulous at such stories, the implication being that they’ve been insulated by their “mansion on the hill” as Izzy refers to it.

But the really interesting aspect of Jewish coding is in the treatment of Barney’s three wives. The first turns out to be a secret Jew hiding from and ashamed of her heritage. She has given herself a Gentile surname to cover up her Hebrew background. When Barney discovers her real name at their wedding his surprise and near disgust register clearly on his face. His second wife is exactly what Hollywood movies have conditioned audiences to expect from a female Jewish character. She is represented as deplorable because that’s how Barney sees her. Her nagging and controlling attitudes are the bane of Barney’s life as long as they’re married: “Did you wash it like I told you?” she asks before a sexual act on their honeymoon.

Ah Miriam – here’s the fascinating part of Barney’s Jewish self-loathing (a characteristic almost as integral to Jewishness as Kosher food and self-doubt) – is given no outward identifying characteristics of being Jewish. The name Miriam is certainly Old Testament, but is common enough among Christians. Her last name Grant is generic and could almost be anything. She is a New York intellectual, itself a common coding for Jewishness, but to look at or listen to her you would have no idea she’s Jewish. She is the one Barney truly loves. What does this suggest about his attitude toward his own roots? Even more interesting is that the name Grant has been changed from the novel’s original Greenberg, suggesting that Konyves and Lewis wanted to make it a point that Barney can’t feel the same closeness to a woman who is obviously coded as Jewish.

In this respect and others the film owes a lot to Woody Allen. The self-doubting and loathing protagonist is a staple of Allen’s New York comedies. Barney has a lot in common with Alvy Singer or Isaac from Manhattan. Allen’s characters were often so hung up on their own shortcomings that they had to mask their insecurities by demeaning others, especially any other man that the girlfriend or wife had a conversation with. Barney’s reaction at listening to Blair (Bruce Greenwood) – the man who will later become Miriam’s second husband – go on about his morally superior vegetarianism is lifted directly out of so many Woody Allen films – particularly Hannah and Her Sisters.


Unfortunately, funny though it is, this insouciant attitude of Barney’s pushes Miriam further away. The catalyst for the ending of their marriage is hardly convincing – one of the film’s two major narrative flaws. I didn’t find Barney’s transgression so terrible (in spite of a promise he makes to Miriam before they marry) that she would throw away what is, at its core, a fundamentally strong relationship. But the problem is that his insecurity (why would such a perfectly wonderful woman be with him?) gets the better of him. Before actually losing his wife to Blair he fears it for years. Blair is the embodiment of Barney’s fear of losing his Jewish wife to a dashing gentile.

The second, and far more maddening, flaw is the complete lack of development of the murder subplot. My instinct tells me this is a major part of the book’s narrative, but here it’s been relegated to second-class status. Admittedly, a film can’t possibly incorporate as many subplots as a book. Choices are made from the script-writing process through the editing that eliminate elements. I think the better choice would have been to excise the murder altogether. As it stands, it seems tossed in as a convenience to get the plot moving along, but it’s dropped so suddenly and with such disregard that I wonder what made Lewis keep any part of it at all. It’s severely underdeveloped and the Barney’s criminal trial, which should be a major part of the plot considering he was meant to go through it while courting Miriam, is non-existent. He basically goes from being under suspicion and getting divorced to marrying Miriam without even a mention of Boogie’s disappearance. And at the risk of issuing a spoiler, the resolution of the mystery is based on a debunked urban legend last pedaled in the prologue of Magnolia. If the case was big enough to warrant a tell-all book by the detective, you would think the  case had some impact on the characters and Miriam’s decision to marry a man suspected of murder.

And yet Barney’s Version works in spite of its glaring flaws. It’s a film that draws the viewer in with taut performances and sharp dialogue. It is a screenplay prepared with careful and deep thought that is refreshingly non-Hollywood while being completely accessible.

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