Barney’s Version

The Better Third and I ventured out last Friday evening to see the long-anticipated (for me) theatrical release of Mordecai Richler’s Barney Version. As the movie was set 14 years into the future with respect to the original story, which in itself would have been difficult enough to faithfully reproduce, I had tempered my expectations for some time before even film production began. Some books are never meant to be shown on the big screen, and while I can appreciate the efforts of film makers who attempt to prove otherwise, disappointment is almost always a result to the books’ biggest fans.

Like me.

What didn’t disappoint was the cast. I couldn’t think of a better actor to play Barney, a curmudgeonly schlock TV producer from Montreal, than Paul Giamatti. Barney’s story (version?) covers almost four decades of harsh living that drove a foolish youth into a cynical old man, and Giamatti was skillful enough to capture that transformation. Richler patterned much of Barney on his own description—same age, physical features, lovely wife—and if you were ever as fortunate as I was to have observed Richler in his later years, Giamatti’s performance would have blown you away.

I never would have picked Dustin Hoffman as Izzy Panofsky, Barney’s retired cop of a father, but he played it perfectly. Similarly, I thought Minnie Driver would have been too old to play the Second Mrs. Panofsky, but she too had the character down pat. The great Saul Rubinek did a wonderful, albeit too brief, turn as Rabbi Charnofsky. Scott Speedman was a revelation as I had no idea he could pull off the literary wunderkind/heroin junkie Boogie, while Bruce Greenwood nailed the character Blair Hooper nee Hauptman, usurper of Barney’s Miriam.

I was underwhelmed (if that’s a word) by Rosamund Pike‘s Miriam. She definitely looked the part and I believe she captured the grace of Barney’s beloved, but I think she had trouble with modifying her English accent to that of a Canadian (or, how I believe she was portrayed in the movie, eastern-seaboard American). She mumbled her words a little bit, which would not have been a big deal except that she was playing a professional disk jockey. But whatever, I’ll give her a pass.

(For Canadian film buffs, there is the added treat of cameos from some of our nation’s esteemed directors—Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg—and the late Canadian icon Maury Chaykin.)

(Oh. And Paul Gross. Yay.)

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the film that were a little hard to ignore, especially those glaring differences between the screenplay and the book.

The most glaring difference was the change in setting from Paris to Rome. This was done as a nod to the Italian government’s support of the film. Why is the Italian government involved? Glad you asked. Italians love Barney Panofsky and his grumpy, unrepentant machismo. A column written in Barney’s name is published in one of the big daily newspapers. Also, producer Robert Lantos thought the Canadian audience wouldn’t know the difference between the two storied European capitals.

Another big difference was the shifting of the timeline from the 1950s to the 1970s. The book featured Barney trying to integrate himself into a motley crew of struggling young artists who were emulating the Lost Generation following the second world war. This is what Richler himself did, move to Paris to find himself or whatever, and it makes sense.  Were a similar group of disparate ex-pats coalescing in Rome in the mid-1970s? If so, I’ve never heard of them. Maybe they were a bunch of Vatican junkies. This might have worked except that these characters might well have been part of the post-hippie generation, with language and educational philosophies mirroring that of stinky hippie scum. But Richler came of age before hippies, or even the Beatniks, and thus embraced literature and art to a more sophisticated degree than their alter-egos in the movie.  The story makes sense in the book; in the film, it doesn’t.

Less noticeable but still frustrated was the film’s treatment of the city of Montreal itself as a character. The book was nothing if but an ode to the city and the cultures Richler had been celebrating throughout all his writings. But save for a quick run through the streets during the Stanley Cup celebrations and a couple of shots of Canadiana (the CBC building, Rue St Catherine), this film could have been set almost anywhere. However, I did enjoy the scenes at his cottage in the Eastern Townships. The cabin looked almost exactly how I imagined it, and the scenes with the water bomber came to life better than I could have expected. I have to wonder if the cabin was Richler’s own.

The movie dropped the character Saul, the oldest Panofsky child, and made the remaining two children much younger. Barney and Miriam have no grandkids in this revamped version, but I doubt this had much of an effect on the story.

Other characters found themselves cut out too. There was no Terry McIver, the book’s impetus for Barney’s telling of his side of the story. Hymie Mintzbaum, the Hollywood producer and Barney’s mentor in the entertainment business, was no where to be found. We didn’t see drinking buddies Zack Keelor or John Hughes-McNoughton, Barney’s disreputable lawyer, who were present just prior to the moment of infidelity. And what Canadian wouldn’t have loved to have seen Duddy Kravitz (once again played by Richard Dreyfus maybe?) make an entrance in Morty Herscovitz’s medical office? I understand that too many characters might have been too much to include in the movie, but I missed them all the same.

One final difference of note was how Miriam was changed from being a CBC Radio disk jockey covering classical music from Toronto to flopping Leonard Cohen in New York City. The film doesn’t even say if she went to McGill or if she’s even Canadian. Moreover, she’s no longer a “Greenberg” but instead is named “Grant”. In other words, she was de-Jewed. Why? I hardly know. Is a shiksa American more appealing to audiences than a Jewish Canadian? I guess so.

But that’s neither here nor there. The producers were making a movie, not repeating a novel. Changes were necessary for such a book that was difficult enough to put on the screen, with it’s complicated flashbacks and self-correcting and mistakes made from the protagonist reflecting on his long life. I’m sure that Charlie Kaufman wasn’t available for hire, and even he would have difficulty with this one. So, I don’t want to get one the screenwriter.

Still, the final screenplay, instead of making the story subjective to Barney’s memory, had the story follow an objective, linear timeline of Barney’s life. In other words, it’s no longer Barney’s version, but rather the actual version. Those audience members who haven’t read the book must wonder why it was called “Barney’s Version” to begin with.

So there’s that.

The biggest weakness was Richard Lewis‘s direction. I liked the performances, but the actors could have used a bit more … something. There were too many pregnant pauses. Montreal should have been featured much more prominently. The scene transitions seemed disjointed; did this next scene take place 10 years ago, or 10 minutes? It was really weak, and the treatment, as lacking as it was, deserved better. So did the actors.

(Maybe they could have used one of the cameoed directors I noted above.)

The best part? Barney is fabulous. He’s got chutzpah, he’s unapologetic (except to Miriam), he’s brash, he’s charming. He’s an enduring character that will long survive this movie, and possibly even the book. He’s on par for Canadian fiction icons with Richler’s own Duddy Kravitz, and that’s saying a lot. Giamatti really would have done Mordecai proud.

Ultimately, I liked the show. I didn’t expect too much, and I found it to be a bit overly sentimental, but that’s okay. Sentiment has it’s place, and the crowd responds to it. Barney’s love for Miriam really resonated and overcame most issues I had.

Go see it. If nothing else, you might be inspired to shoot some Macallan’s and spark up a stogie.

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