Friday, December 3, 2010

The Lewis/Lantos vision of BARNEY'S VERSION brings Richler's novel to life

Sometimes a labor of love proves exactly what is needed. That, at least, seems the case with BARNEY'S VERSION, the film of Mordecai Richler's final novel that producer Robert Lantos, director Richard J. Lewis, screenwriter Michael Konyves and a beautifully-chosen cast have brought to the screen in splendid form, and which Sony Pictures Classics is opening today in New York and L.A. for one week to qualify for award consideration by Academy members. Consider they will. This is good old-fashioned film-making meant for modern audiences. It reminds us what movies are still capable of doing: bringing the novelistic pleasure of a wonderful story, rich characterization and decades of time passing before us, as characters we come to love begin to grow and change.

OK: Lots of films attempt this, using pretty much the same strategy. But in the hands of this team and its crack cast, led by Paul Giamatti, shown above, left, as Barney (a shoo-in for Best Actor nomination) and Dustin Hoffman as his dad (above, right, and likewise likely for a Best Supporting Actor nod), almost everything that has made its way to the screen seems intelligent, often very funny, and absolutely on-target.

TrustMovies confesses to not having any idea of the bona fides of director Lewis (shown at left), who according to the press materials has worked mostly for television. No matter. He's made a real movie here, drawing ace performances from his entire cast and, working with Konyves' fine screenplay, choosing the right scenes -- at the right length -- to bring to marvelous life this odd, engaging story of a smart schlub in (and out of) love. In the first scene of the movie, we peg Barney as an asshole. By the end, we're likely to reach the same conclusion.

Yet between those points, we learn so much about the guy and come to care for him despite his foolish narcissism that he -- and his family and friends -- seem part of our own lives. This bunch includes his first, second and third wives, played respectively by Rachelle Lefevre (shown, pregnant, below), Minnie Driver, and the outstanding Rosamund Pike. To the filmmakers' credit, as crass as wives one and two may be, they remain human, sorrowful and worth caring about, even if they're certainly not the right match for our Barney.

That right match is provided by Pike (below, from Pride & Prejudice, Surrogates, An Education, Made in Dagenham), and this might be the movie that finally gives her the kind of audience identification she deserves. (But take note: She's a brunette here, after playing blonds through most of her movie career.) Other important roles are essayed by a hunky, smart Scott Speedman (as Barney's best friend, shown at left,  above) and Bruce Greenwood (as a suavely annoying "other man").
The filmmakers capture the time period beautifully via visuals, sets, clothes and music, and Richler's wonderful humor is brought to the fore with writing that's a canny combination of character, situation and ethnicity -- plus performances that make the most of some very smart dialog.

Barney's Version -- unlike last year's tiresome but supposed Oscar Bait from Sony Pictures Classics, The Last Station -- is the real thing, another fine film from Canada and one that Academy members may find it difficult to pass up. It has opened here in New York at City Cinema 1, 2, 3 and in Los Angeles at The Landmark for one week only and will not be seen again until its official theatrical opening on January 14, 2011.

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