Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Film #10 Barney's Version

I'm back, refreshed from a Highland retreat and fully recovered from a yellow-fever-jab-related bout of 'flu-like symptoms'. I have a bit of a backlog of reviews to post, so expect a flurry of activity of the next week!

First up: the oddity that is Barney's Version, an adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name. It's difficult to summarise briefly what the film is about, suffice to say we are shown various episodes in the life of Barney Panofksy (Paul Giamatti), a Jewish native of Montreal who moves from trading in olive oil in 1960s Rome to becoming a TV producer back in Canada in the 80s and 90s. Support comes from Scott Speedman as Barney's novelist friend Boogie, Dustin Hoffman as Barney's feckless ex-cop dad, plus Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike as, respectively, Barney's first, second and third wives.

First the good news: the performances are great. Giamatti is, as always, a saturnine delight; Rosamund Pike, the love of his life, is warm yet statuesque. Dustin Hoffman reminds us that he was once an actor, before all the TV adverts, sitcom cameos and that Fokker business. Minnie Driver is scarily convincing as a JAP (or JCP, presumably) and Mark Addy also appears as a beefy detective with a grudge and a stick-on moustache.

The film also looks and sounds lovely, and being story of Jewish Montreal we are treated to a couple of mid-period Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack. The dialogue is curious, realistic and often funny, and we enjoy spending time with the characters (or at least we enjoy watching how they choose to fuck up their lives).

But there are problems. I suppose the oddest thing about the film is that it was ever made in the first place. It is a thoroughly uncinematic story, if indeed it can be called a story at all. For one thing, it rambles through about fifty years of Barney's life, and while there are themes and motifs there is no real plot as such. There is a kind of murder-mystery going on, I suppose, and we see various infidelities and also the onset of Alzheimer's but in trying to bring to screen an episodic novel (with, as the title would suggest, an unreliable narrator) we just end up watching a collection of delightfully-performed scenes rather than a proper movie.

Also, the director, the star and the screenwriter have somewhat quixotically tried to make Barney genuinely three-dimensional. Whereas in most movies he would just be a schlub, here Barney is both faithful and philandering, principled and venal, smart and stupid. As such it suffers from chronic film-of-the-book-itis: a novel has such a luxury of audience attention and time that genuinely lifelike characters can be created. Films, on the other hand, are more-or-less required to deal in archetypes - if you're telling  a story over a period of 80-110 minutes (and your film should be really special - Godfather-special - to be longer than that) there is simply no time to show a character from every angle, or if you do then it will be a the expense of something else.

Despite all of these problems I did enjoy the film - but I don't think it's for everyone. Essentially, if you like Paul Giamatti, watch it, if you've never heard of Paul Giamatti, don't bother.


Screening notes:

1. I was at a fairly early weekend showing and the cinema was therefore full of parents and children queuing up for Tangled, the latest Disney. Interestingly, the majority wanted to watch the 2D rather than 3D version and there was a bit of box-office drama as the first two 2D showings had sold out completely. An early rumbling of the end for gratuitous 3D? Let's hope so.
2. Conversely to the above, the Barney's Version screening was pensioner-heavy and I was treated to a lovely pathos-ridden running commentary from a pair of old dears behind me - normally unwelcome but here offering a curious counterpoint to the all the arty-smarty stuff on screen.

1 comment:

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