Barney's Version is a Canadian screen adaptation of a novel by famed
Canadian author Mordecai Richler. Richler is sort of the Canadian Philip
Roth, an outspoken, sometime raunchy chronicler of life in the Jewish
community of his youth. His stories are often based on the places and
people who occupied his childhood in a blue-collar ethnic neighborhood in
Montreal. Richler's sensibilities were formed by his having been part of a
third level of disrespect: English speakers are outnumbered and often
scorned in Quebec; within that minority Jews are outnumbered and often
scorned by Christians; and within that minority everyday blue-collar Jews
tend to be looked down upon by the snobby successful ones. Richler uses
all three of those conditions as a backdrop, or maybe a frontdrop, for his
novels. The most famous of Richler's novels, The Apprenticeship of Duddy
Kravitz, was made into a prestigious, if little-seen, 1974 film starring
Richard Dreyfuss, who was then hot off his success in American Graffiti.
Duddy Kravitz took in a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film
(Canada being the foreign country), and the screenplay by Lionel Chetwynd
was nominated for an Oscar.
In simplest terms, Barney's Version is the life story of a blunt, crude
fellow who finds his true love on the day of his wedding to another woman.
Of course Richler is a serious author, so there's a lot more going on than
can be summed up by that catch phrase.
There are actually three main stories in Barney's Version. The central
story is Barney's pursuit of his true love. The second is Barney's
relationship with his dad, a Montreal beat cop played by Dustin Hoffman.
The third is a murder mystery. Well, sorta. A Montreal detective believes
that Barney (Paul Giamatti) shot and killed his friend Boogie. This is not
an unreasonable assumption, given that Barney is known to have fired two
shots after having caught Boogie in the sack with Barney's second wife.
Did Barney commit the crime? Even he does not know! He and Boogie were
both extremely drunk and playing with a gun on a private boat dock. Barney
fired a shot in Boogie's direction and passed out. When Barney regained
consciousness, Boogie was gone. On the other hand, Boogie, a junkie and a
free-spirit, was known to disappear for years without telling anyone, and
his body was never found. So ...
In addition to all those developments, there's much more going on in
the background. There is Barney's relationship with the wastrel friends of
his youth, his bizarre and tragic first marriage, and his uneasy dealings
with his own son. In fact, there's too much going on, resulting in some
severely underdeveloped elements. For example, some of the Barney-and-son
story seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, because the son
seems to go inexplicably and abruptly from total disrespect and
abandonment of his father to doting loyalty, with no reconciliation
As for the three central threads, I only enjoyed one. The love story is
movie business-as-usual, and the murder mystery ends in complete
contrivance when an implausible resolution is timed expediently, but the
film's saving grace was the loving relationship between Barney and his
outspoken dad. Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman are two of the greatest
character actors of their respective generations, and they are absolutely
magnificent when they perform together, whether engaging in witty banter
or mushy sentiment. Barney's second wedding is the best scene in the film.
Barney and his dad get falling-down drunk and are obviously fish out of
water in the company of Barney's snobby in-laws. Barney's dad shocks most
of the staid crowd by telling raunchy and violent cop stories, but dad
seems downright dignified compared to Barney, who spends the entire
reception drinking sloppily, watching hockey, offending his father-in-law,
and flirting with another woman, whom he pursues to the Montreal train
station, thus abandoning his own wedding reception. That woman turns out
to be his true love.
If the rest of the film had retained more of the high spirits and
Richlerian iconoclasm of the wedding scene, Barney's Version could have
been an excellent film. Unfortunately, it is actually only a noble failure
because the plot degenerates into maudlin scenes about Barney's eventual
Alzheimer's disease, although that specific medical term is never spoken
aloud. Barney goes from being an amusing curmudgeon in the first half to a
pathetic and helpless old man in the finale. Since the feisty
personalities of Barney and his dad are the only elements that make the
film work, the film simply grinds to a halt when they are absent.
Unfortunately, the author and director of this movie did not seem to
realize that. The film runs more than two hours. After an hour I was
completely absorbed with Barney's Version. After 90 minutes I was looking
at my watch, trying to figure out how much longer things would drag on.
After 120 minutes I was wishing to be a religious man, so I could pray for
deliverance from this film.