Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Adapting Richler: Barney’s Version

Though frequently controversial in his native Quebec, Mordecai Richler was arguably the most celebrated Anglophone Canadian novelist south of the great northern border. As it not typically the case, his final novel was also one of his most acclaimed. After a prolonged development period, director Richard J. Lewis and producer Robert Lantos’ adaptation of Barney’s Version (trailer here) finally opens for real in New York this Friday, after a brief Oscar qualifying run late last year.

Introspection might not be Barney Panofsky’s forte, but a new book making scandalous accusations about him has the late middle-aged man looking back over his life. In flashbacks, we see Panofsky live life’s highs and lows, as he recollects his youthful expatriate years in Italy, the Canadian television career he is openly contemptuous of, and a particularly fateful day when his friend Boogie, a determinedly unpublished novelist, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Yet, his three marriages provide the real key to understanding the irascible Panofsky.

Despite all the years and geography Version covers, it is a relatively simple story of a nebbish anti-hero torturing himself over the one that got away. Of course, like most of Richler’s oeuvre, it is deeply informed by the Canadian-Jewish experience, but Panofsky’s relationships have genuine universality (disastrous though they might be). He is embarrassed by his broken-down ex-cop father, but also fiercely loyal to the old man. He loves his children, yet constantly takes them for granted. Wives number one and two are mistakes to varying degrees, but number three, Myriam, is a different story.

Under ordinary circumstances, Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike would never look like a credible couple, but they establish sufficient rapport to sell their unlikely pairing. Indeed, they have one of the better movie courtships in recent years, best described as manic rather than cute.

Panofsky is easily Giamatti’s best work in a number of outings, while Pike projects a warm, smart presence as his beloved ex. Strangely though, the supporting players are all over the map. Dustin Hoffman is legitimately Oscar worthy as Panofsky père, wonderfully conveying his not-as-dumb-as-he-looks crudeness. In a clever bit of casting, Hoffman’s son Jake also appears as Panofsky’s son Michael, doing what he can with a relatively limited role. Scott Speedman is most notable amongst the ensemble, truly electric as the problematic Boogie. However, Bruce Greenwood and Minnie Driver basically resort to grating caricatures as Panofsky’s crass second wife and Myriam’s only slightly effeminate second husband, respectively.

Working from a first draft Richler was revising at the time of his death, screenwriter Michael Konyves infuses Version’s dialogue with wit and verve, without sounding like he is trying too hard. Though the 132 minute running time is a bit on the longish side, director Lewis (primarily known for television projects) still keeps it moving along nicely. Sad, funny, and most certainly memorable, if not exactly perfect, Version is a worthy Oscar showcase for Giamatti (and Dustin Hoffman if any Academy voters are listening out there). It (re)opens this Friday (1/14) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Union Square Theaters.