@ The Neon
March 3, 2011
Of course Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) plays Barney Panofsky, the hero of Barney’s Version. If you ever find yourself in need of an actor to dominate a role that calls for an insecure, self destructive, witty, snarky, alcoholic, Giamatti should be at the top of your list.
At first, it seems as though Barney is cursed. The movie begins with an older Barney. Seemingly innocent, lonely and depressed. Shortly thereafter, the audience is surprisingly and refreshingly shown a young, vibrant Barney about to begin his first of three failed marriages. When this first marriage ends tragically, I thought, “Is this just going to be a series of unfortunate events that results in a beaten down man?” As the story progresses, however, it becomes apparent that Barney is a ticking time bomb, too paranoid or drunk to realize that he doesn’t have it half bad. Because his insecurities and paranoia will not allow him to accept his good fortune, Barney inevitably self destructs.
The source of Barney’s neuroses probably stem from the fact that the women and friends with which he surrounds himself are infinitely more beautiful and well-liked than he. A fact that loudly pronounces itself to Barney when his third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who is the only of his three wives he actually loves, announces that she needs a week to herself. What should have been a harmless week apart for a long-married couple with two grown children plagues Barney. While Miriam is away, Barney’s insecurities come bubbling up as his mind attacks itself with thoughts of losing the best part of his life. In response to imagined dangers, Barney launches a very real preemptive strike that destroys his final marriage.
Barney’s Version is actually quite lighthearted and humorous despite the personal hells that the audience experiences alongside Barney. Much of the humor is provided by Barney’s father, played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman is as likable as always and serves as an example to Barney of what life can be like if you allow yourself to enjoy it. The two are more friends than father-son and Barney seems to be at his happiest when in the company of his dad.
The final tragedy Barney endures, the progression of Alzheimer’s that robs him of his charm and wit, at first seemed like a throw-in to me. Like an unnecessary evil that the audience could have done without. But, as some time has passed since I saw Barney’s Version, I find myself rethinking that stance. I’m wondering now if that terrible disease finally gave Barney’s brain a rest. A chance to let the self-loathing evaporate and to allow Barney to simply observe, rather than destroy.
Whether the Alzheimer’s was relevant or not, Barney’s Version is tremendously entertaining thanks in large part to Giamatti who convincingly conveys decades of a complicated man’s life.