Saturday, March 26, 2011

Barney's Version (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Barney's Version

Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) seems constantly threatened by a foreboding black boulder over his head. But it wasn't always that way. At the beginning of "Barney's Version" we see him as a youngish bohemian in 1974 enjoying Rome. He pals around with hipsters and talks about writing and painting. He is happy. He has a friend, Clara, an impulsive artist who he seems crazy about. He thinks Clara is having his child. Barney and Clara get married. Then things change. It is not Barney's baby. Remorseful, Clara intends to make amends. But Barney does not get the message and arrives too late. Clara commited suicide. He is traumatized and haunted and keeps revisiting the places in Rome  where Clara walked. 

Years later, he tries to put his past behind him. His uncle fixes him up with an orthodox high maintenance knockout (Minnie Driver)  Barney marries again but his heart is not in it. At the wedding, he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike). With her angelic looks and Barney's frenzied impulses, the film recalls  "Life is Beautiful." Barney wants to run away with Miriam and watch hockey.

Barney throughout the film is a kind of surly existentialist. A bit like Larry David blended with Woody Allen. A bizarre mixture of Albert Camus and a Warner Brothers Tazmanian Devil cartoon. Barney is either goggle-eyed with excitement or non-plussed by life and what it offers until he meets Miriam, who hits him like a charged elixir.

Barney asks his father (Dustin Hoffman) for help and advice; he's soon to be divorced. And the father surprisingly gives consent.

During a solitary escape to a cabin in the country, he walks in on his friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) in bed with his wife. Was this a setup by Barney's father or happenstance? Perhaps a mixture of both. An argument ensues. The two characters comically roll down a hill. After continued badgering from his friend, Barney takes out a gun. Barney trips. The gun fires. Boogie is knocked into the lake, perhaps shot or drowned. 

Barney is then hunted by a dogged investigator (Mark Addy) just as Barney himself pursues Miriam. And he is soon divorced.

"Barney's version" is a two sided film. One side has the flavor of a Neil Simon comedy with its  light references on orthodox ritual but on the other, it is edgy and irreverent, with a Tom Waitsian melancholia running throughout as if sung by the illustrator  Harvey Pekar. It is no mistake then, that Giamatti once played Pekar in "American Splendor"  or that this latest film features songs by Leonard Cohen. 

The film is deceptively cartoonish. Although Dustin Hoffman at first look might be like Bernie Focker with his outrageous comments, he hits with heart and his scenes with Giamatti speak of closeness and conspiracy between father and son. When Barney finds his father's deceased body at the back room of a strippers' bar the body is half cloaked in a red sheet. The scene could have been painted by a Los Angeles Caravaggio.

Barney is haunted by the heaviness of rocks, the weight of what lies ahead: the rock of his body that tumbles through life like a bowling ball, the rock that he puts on his mother's grave. The rock of the investigator that pursues him with a sinister detachment that rivals any Hitchcock police figure. And the rock of his own grave that he reserves  next to Miriam without her consent.
To deflect that rock, Barney's behavior is authentic, unbecoming and human, which makes "Barney"s version" a transfixing experience under the guise of a light kosher comedy.

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