When we envision meeting the love of our lives, it’s not often that dream might include falling for them at the reception of our own wedding. But Barney’s Version (2010), dedicated to and based upon the work of the late, brilliant Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, takes a look at love and the ways it can sideswipe you when you least expect it.
While most people are bound by societal convention, Barney Panofsky on the night of his second wedding – and amidst the riotous street celebrations following the Montreal Canadiens winning of the Stanley Cup in 1976 – decides to chase down the train carrying the woman who just minutes before he has fallen madly, irrationally in love with.
Told in lengthy flashbacks, the film is seen mostly from the very flawed perspective of Barney, a cigar-smoking Montreal television executive and incorrigible man whose generous heart and mishap-prone nature somehow go hand in hand. An early hint to this is seen after his first wife gives birth to a stillborn child who looks more like Barney’s African-American best friend, Cedric (Canadian actor Clé Bennett), than him. “You really do wear your heart on your sleeve,” she says. “Now put it away, it’s disgusting.”
When he gets married again a year later, the same friend is seen donning a white yarmulke and dancing wildly with the groom and his other two friends at the wedding party.
The movie, directed by Richard J. Lewis, boasts a star-studded cast, including Emmy Award-winning Paul Giamatti in the titular role, screen legend Dustin Hoffmann as his beloved and equally irascible father, Scott Speedman and Clé Bennett as his pivotal best friends, and actresses Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver and Rachelle Lefevre making stellar appearances of varying lengths as each of his wives.
Barney’s Version could easily have become bloated with celebrity cameos bogging down the story. But each actor brings a sincerity and depth to the portrayal of the family and friends surrounding – and being impacted by – Barney Panofsky. If you can spot them, Paul Gross, Atom Egoyan, Saul Rubinek, and David Cronenberg make blink-and-miss cameos. Also, look out for Jake Hoffmann, Dustin’s talented offspring who manages to make his screen presence felt even in a small role as Barney’s straight-talking, no-B.S. son.
Barney’s Version looks at the undying, ever-forgiving love between friends (even the kind of friends that negate the need for enemies), the bonds between parents and children, and the notion of living life to the very fullest, your way.
But it’s more than a memoir of a man who makes too many mistakes but still ends up with a wonderful life; it’s about acknowledging the reality that it is not always happy endings, but it is also never just tragic tales of loss. It is exuberant, it is despairing, it’s nostalgic, it’s joyous, it’s life.
At the end of the film you come away cheering for a man who, even to the bittersweet end, lived it to the fullest – his version of it.