10 March 2011

A Life Unexamined

Don't let the pedestrian title of Richard J. Lewis' film adaptation of Mordecai Richler's irascible novel of the same name fool you.  Barney's Version is a haggis of angst, romance, betrayal, comedy, and tragedy.  Paul Giamatti inhabits the eponymous role with usual dejected brilliance.  Playing an overweight, balding yet hirsute drunk with few redeeming qualities, Giamatti still makes himself likable enough to root for. No wonder he won a Golden Globe for best actor. I mean, it'd be hard to like Barney Panofsky even if he was played by a butterfly.

The throbbing question I had upon exiting the theater is "what the hell did everyone see in this guy?"  Not only do gorgeous and brilliant (to be fair, one is certifiably insane too) women want to sleep with him, they want to marry him too.  We meet him as he lives a bohemian lifestyle with writers, painters, and musicians in 1970s Rome.  Doesn't get much cooler than that.  And yet, by all accounts, Barney has no discernible talents, rarely works, lacks a sense of humour, and his sole skill may be the inherent ability to aggravate and enrage all those around him, a skill which his Jewishness betrothed upon him.

The real charmer in this tale is Dustin Hoffman as Giamatti's blue-collar widower father, Izzy.  Hoffman brings a warm Jewish patriarchy to the proceedings but elides cliché by being the kind of father who comes over and sleeps with the maid whenever his son and daughter-in-law leave the house, or, when Barney comes to him with his plans to leave his heiress wife for another woman, he reminds him of a few facts to maintain perspective, like her infinite riches and that his son is "married to a woman (Minnie Driver) who has a fantastic rack!"

The problem with Barney, though, is he's vindictive, petty, rude, careless, and he has absolutely no reason to be!  Women love him, and in the case of his third wife, played with subtle angelic sexiness by former Bond girl Rosamund Pike, is a downright saint whose patience and adoration of this Falstaffian figure is inexplicable.  He's also got wonderfully interesting friends, and tons of money, even though based on the glimpses of him working leads one to believe all a TV producer does is sit in the director's chair with his forehead in one hand and a whiskey neat in the other. 

Oscar Wilde famously said, "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."  Barney Parnofsky's tragedy is that he didn't know what he wanted, and only realized he had everything any man could ever wish for -- and threw it all away -- by which time it was all too late to make good.  Throughout his life, he disavowed any introspection, he never learned from his mistakes, and in the end, he lost perhaps the most precious possession of all, the magical ability to remember.  It may as well have been as if he had not lived at all.