On “Barney’s Version,” and “Another Year”

There’s been some good stuff at the movies of late, with little time to write about it.  One which may make my all-time top-whatever list is Barney’s Version, with the always excellent and never-better Paul Giamatti.  Last month, it finally came and was whisked out of town after one brief week at Vinegar Hill, and thankfully has now returned to play at the Downtown Regal.  It’s a Canadian film directed by Richard J. Lewis, based on a 1997 novel by Mordecai Richler (1931-2001).  I understand, as usual, that the book is even better than the movie, but the movie goes right up there with one of the richest vicarious experiences I’ve had in years.  Richler also wrote the book behind the wonderful Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and this film shares much of the same humor and pathos.

So what is Barney’s Version? It’s the story of a lifetime.  It’s a story of the singular pursuit of one true love.  It’s about fathers and sons.  It’s about obsession, and betrayal, and aging, and dementia, and forgiveness, and disappointment, and death.  But most of all:  it’s about FUN, and the uninhibited impulse to live life to the fullest.  Barney is an obnoxious, aging, foul-mouthed, cigar-sucking, heavy-drinking, TV soap producer, who looks back on a life he both loves and despises himself for.   Giamatti transforms himself magically over roughly a half-century, in speech, in physical bearing, and in appearance. He is an inherently funny man, as we all remember from Sideways and his other films, and the laughs come loud and often.  But here he shares so much more of himself, as wide a range of human emotion on film as I’ve seen in a long time.  How tricky is it to take such a shallow, loud, ostensibly rotten character, and expose the vulnerability that makes us love and understand him?  I’m a sucker for getting choked up in sensitive movie moments, but I had to fight back more than a few tears of familiarity.  He received a Golden Globe for his performance, and as good as the other contenders were, about whom I’ve already written, it’s a travesty that this film and this actor received so little attention from the Academy.  It all had to do with budgets, I’m sure.  As Barney’s father, Dustin Hoffman turns in one of his best performances in years, as does the beautiful Rosamund Pike, both of whom should have had additional statuettes on their mantle pieces by now.  Minnie Driver and so many other talents are on hand as well — not a false note among them.

I’m going to see this one again, and when the DVD finally goes on sale, I just may have to own it.

Some weeks ago I started to rave about Another Year when my wife and I first saw it.  In retrospect, it has not held up so well.  I’m a longtime Mike Leigh (director) fan, for his marvelous portraits of the British common man.  And I’d be nuts to miss anything with Jim Broadbent or Ruth Sheen in it, or Imelda Staunton (here in a tiny cameo), or for that matter any of Leigh’s stable of fine actors.  The previews offered Another Year up as a comedy, though, and I felt a little betrayed by them, since it’s basically the story of  Mary’s growing depression.  The reasons for her state of mind are not sufficiently or sympathetically explored, but Mary herself is beautifully and sympathetically played by the very able Leslie Manville.  I admit, however, that I fell prey to the way most of us deal with needy, depressive personalities.  In this world and at this time, so many of us can be on the verge that it’s a little dangerous to be too closely associated with them, unkind as that may be.  And that is exactly the case with the incurably perfect couple played by the affable Broadbent and Sheen.  As good and as honest as this film is, a study in depression is not what I was up for, no matter how wonderful the genuine laughter that softens it.

I bow to my friend Stephen Sossaman, with whom I mostly agree, whose remarks on this film in his January 18 blog are much more extensive and comprehensive than mine.

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