Barney Panofsky is many things. He is miserable, and he is also a world-class jerk. There is plenty of room to debate over whether he’s miserable because he’s been a jerk, or whether he’s acted like a jerk because he was miserable. What’s clear either way is that Barney is full of the sort of character that comes from regrets and bittersweet memories, and now even that is slipping away from him. It’s clear that many people would tell many different versions of what happened, but this is Barney’s Version.
Barney (Paul Giamatti) starts his story in Rome, as the one gainfully employed friend of a cadre of artists. He marries Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), thinking he’s the father of her child, only to find out it’s one of his friends’ doings. Clara commits suicide soon after, despondent over Barney’s withdrawn affections. Is it his fault? Probably not, but that won’t stop him from assuming the guilt.
Barney moves back to Montreal to start a career as a producer for a soap opera — O’Malley of the North. His uncle sets him up with a nice Jewish girl (Minnie Driver), who comes from a very good family, and whose name we never do learn. He marries her as well, but does he ever really put in the effort she deserves? Not really. He’s more focused on his own concerns.
One of those concerns is Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who he meets at his wedding to the second Mrs. Panofsky, and who he falls madly in love with at first sight. Yes, she’s lovely, and yes, the second Mrs. Panofsky is a stereotypical pain, but does that really justify Barney’s behavior?
No matter. He never gives up his pursuit, and after catching his wife and best friend (Scott Speedman) in a tryst he gets a divorce so he can pursue Miriam. Which he does, and marries her, and raises a family with her, only to yet again let everything slip away when it’s not all about him, consumed with jealousy over her professional mentor Blair (Bruce Greenwood).
This is a very difficult movie to talk about without spoiling it, since it doesn’t really become clear what it’s all about until rather near the end. For the first two thirds it’s all over the map, and the audience doesn’t really know what to make of it. But then, that’s life, isn’t it? It’s a credit to Mordecai Richler, the original author, and to Michael Konyves’ work in adapting the story that they can paint such a portrait of a life fully lived. And it’s no surprise that Giamatti can take that portrait and bring it to life, warts and all.
Because when it comes down to it, if this is really Barney’s version, he doesn’t exactly do himself many favors. Time passes, and memories fade — some more than others — and yet Barney’s faults and failures remain. When all else is gone, Barney holds on to these, poking at them over and over, like a cut on the roof of his mouth that he can’t stop licking. His surest companion is his own sense of self-recrimination, and it will stay with him until everything else fades into the mist. The best we can do is to stand witness.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.