So far the year's best title goes to the wry drama “Barney's Version,” so direct is its meaning and yet so elusive is its promise.
The film, based on a novel by acclaimed Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, opens with Barney (Paul Giamatti), a recently separated producer of a popular Canadian soap opera, drowning his sorrows in a bar. He is accosted by a man (Mark Addy) bearing a book he angrily proclaims will reveal the dirty truth about Barney to the world. What is this truth? The movie then starts over, retelling Barney's adult life, beginning with a short-lived marriage in Rome before following him to Montreal and through two more marriages, a couple of friendships, and an episode that will forever mark him in some eyes as a criminal. Are we right to assume we are getting Barney's version now?
The only thing that's certain is that the movie, surprisingly, tries hard to let the audience make of the information what it will, while delving into the details as if profiling a great statesman or revealing evidence in a sensational crime.
After his disastrous first marriage forces Barney back to Montreal, he quickly meets and marries a wealthy woman (Minnie Driver) in an attempt to do the right thing in the eyes of his friends and family. At his own wedding he falls head over heels in love with an intellectual beauty named Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he spends months wooing — a concentration of energy that eventually sends his wife into the arms of his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), a failed writer Barney has been trying to help off drugs. Boogie disappears and Barney becomes a suspect before finally convincing Miriam they should wed. He seems settled and happy, finally, but there's still plenty of time for this part of his life to go wrong.
In one respect, “Barney's Version” is an examination of the line between merit and fault; the reasons things go right or wrong for a person while he or she remains essentially the same. Barney's first marriage, for example, to Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), ends in an unfortunate miscarriage and suicide. Barney tries blaming everyone: himself, his friend, his father-in-law, even his dead wife, but what good does it do? The question of fault resurfaces throughout the movie, with the disintegration of Barney's second marriage, the disappearance of Boogie and, especially, the lapses in character Barney suffers in the more difficult moments of his final marriage with Miriam.
Giamatti's task is not easy, as he must play a guy who can be both admirable and pathetic. With the help of Richler, along with director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves, he creates the kind of fully realized individual that is rare to find in cinema, especially when characters like Barney are so often conceived as devices loaded with an agenda. Barney's a real guy, for better and worse.
And yet do we really know him? “Barney's Version” seems to revel in the fact that Barney remains somewhat of an enigma, that his life, his personality, never hardens into a predictable pattern. In that way it recalls films such as “Citizen Kane” and “Synecdoche, New York,” themselves attempts to prove the futility of their own efforts. “Barney's Version” is similar — a lifetime of evidence proving no amount is enough.
Only in the film's conclusion is this notion troublesome. Having messed up with the love of his life, Barney begins to forget things, and soon it's clear he's headed for complete memory loss brought on by something like Alzheimer's. Barney the character drifts out of focus, and worse, the film's lesson mutates into a more difficult (and perhaps even unintentional) nihilism. Has the story given in to a topical issue rather than forging ahead with its themes, or is this development just another example of the limited control we have to maintain our own “version” of our lives? Like its protagonist, “Barney's Version” is excellent so much of the time that we don't mind if it lets us down a little here and there. (R) 132 min. S