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Movie Blog: Giamatti Redeems ‘Barney’s Version’

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Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver embrace in "Barney's Version." (credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver embrace in “Barney’s Version.” (credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

It isn’t uncommon for a novel to hold the seed of a great movie – no doubt you’ve already thought of an example. Unfortunately, it also isn’t uncommon for a novel to morph into an awkward, bloated or lackluster movie.

Enter Barney’s Version: a film about the frustrated, romantic and ultimately tragic life of Barney Panofsky. It isn’t a bad movie; but it belongs to the category of novels-turned-films that don’t quite work — that is, don’t do enough to turn the literary into the cinematic.

To begin, the plot is muddled. It begins with the intrigue of murder mystery, the tone of which is gradually lost throughout the movie, making much of the early drama rather insipid. From this strange start the movie rewinds to familiarize the viewer with every romantic or dramatic episode of Barney’s adult life. First, you see him in Rome as a sort of bohemian patron with his artist friends and crazy first wife, then you witness Barney’s meeting and marriage to his sexy but spoiled second wife and then, after all that, you watch Barney fall in love with the woman to which he dedicates his life and who, as you may have guessed, becomes his third wife. And that’s the beginning. From there the movie begins to explore Barney’s struggle as he loses his sanity and all he holds dear. The murder mystery is cleared up somewhere in there, too. In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

Barney’s Version tries to do a lot. Its narrative is rich with material and ripe with dramatic potential. Unfortunately, the subplots and flashbacks don’t mix well, making the film’s action seem sluggish and literary in the worst sense.

On the positive, however, the movie has one great redeeming factor: Paul Giamatti.

Giamatti, who plays Barney, is easily the best thing in Barney’s Version. He carries the film; he is the source of its pathos. As the story flickers between Barney’s present and past, Giamatti grounds the bloated narrative by bringing to life Barney’s tenderness, audacity, sorrow and selfishness. Barney is both frustrating and adorable – and Giamatti makes this happen.

Now for something personal. When I went to see Barney’s Version, I didn’t know it was based on a novel. But as I watched the story run on rather drably, I felt as though I were reading one. This bothered me. I like movies to feel like movies, to take advantage of film’s uniqueness as a medium. So when the credits rolled and it was revealed that indeed the film had its origins in a novel, I was pleased to see my suspicions confirmed. This pleasure was the best feeling the movie offered me aside from the pleasures felt from two particularly gripping and poetic scenes.

In other words, I think I would have had a better time reading the book.

If you’re in the mood for a Valentine’s Day movie date, Barney’s Version isn’t a bad choice. It’s just not a great one either. For each good scene it has, there are several that fail to tug at any heartstrings despite how long or how loudly the soundtrack’s violins hum.

Jonathon Sharp is a web producer for WCCO.COM.

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