Barney’s Version is an entertaining film that belies its long runtime with excellent casting, engaging writing and solid direction. Despite those highlights, this film will probably polarize audiences because of the actions of the main character. So the moral question that audiences have to chew over becomes: Do marriage vows supersede true love? As such, viewers will have strong feelings either way. Whether they hate it or love it, however, Barney’s Version is undeniably well put together and a fine cinematic offering.
Barney’s Version follows the life of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) who seems like a genuine and well-meaning guy, but who is constantly embroiled in horrible circumstances. His first wife ensnared him by convincing Barney that he was the father of her soon-to-be-born child – which was a lie – and then killed herself. His second wife (Minnie Driver) betrays him with his best friend (Scott Speedman), who Barney may or may not have murdered after the fact. Finally, he meets the love of his life, Miriam (Rosamund Pike) at the wedding reception for his second marriage. Barney’s life is complicated and he fights human weakness to make good choices, but sometimes fails in very big ways.
Barney’s Version is a very rich story full of colorful, memorable characters. At its core, this movie is a love story and watching Barney traverse the tortuous path to love is instantly sympathetic. The abuse he takes from his first wife is infuriating and the mismatch of personalities with his second wife is annoying. When he finally lands the love of his life, there’s a sense of relief and personal hope that everyone will find that one person who completes them. On the other hand, some viewers may be irrevocably put off by the lengths Barney goes to in order to achieve his personal happiness. For those viewers, the last half of the film may stick in their collective craw and magnify all of Barney’s poor choices from then on. Personal opinions notwithstanding, Giamatti and the fine writing definitely bring Barney Panofsky to life.
The supporting cast, while sometimes presenting themselves as caricatures of people, also shapes the film in a handsome manner. Barney’s father (Dustin Hoffman) has the uncanny ability to be instantly intimate, sharing appalling stories at inappropriate times, without purposefully trying to shock. Yet he can also be heart-achingly tender. Scott Speedman also manages to carve out more of a character than his screen time would typically allow, hinting at a rich history of friendship that makes his ultimate betrayal that much more treacherous. Rosamund Pike is probably the most enjoyable supporting cast member both in character and talent. It’s wonderful to watch her staid performance opposite the sometimes extremely expressive Giamatti. Every aspect of her performance appears effortless – even in her moments of seduction where she lies half-naked on a bed, simply staring.
For those who can reserve judgment on the characters, Barney’s Version will fly by. For the rest, the minutes will crawl. There is also a lot of character development that isn’t always necessary, like Barney’s production company and his constant battling with his aging starlet. There’s also no real goal any of the characters are working toward. There’s a running plot that involves Barney’s possible murder of his friend Boogie, but it’s a tertiary plot at best. Finally, the filmmakers chose to intercut present day scenes with flashbacks that don’t immediately make sense, forcing audiences to hang on to information until it becomes clear much later in the film. As such Barney’s Version can sometimes feel like disconnected vignettes of people just living life. Thankfully, the strength of the acting and dialogue keep those moments engaging.
Enjoying Barney’s Version to its fullest really hinges on accepting the actions of a wounded character. The film lays Barney’s history bare to help explain his decisions in the future. He is far from perfect – and is sometimes despicable – but he is always sympathetic and fully realized in Paul Giamatti’s excellent portrayal. With that said, opinions of this film may say just as much about the viewer as the work itself.