Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Comments on Barney's Version--the Movie-- and Mordecai Richler

Richler did satire and black humour right up until Cocksure. Therefore, he had in his fiction a mordant world view. St. Urbain’s Horseman through to Barney’s Version saw him returning to verisimilitude and to, too, a view of the world leavened by possibility particularly by way of love and family. But essential to that view of the world is a kind of modernist negative capability: we are, he says, necessarily morally flawed, inhabiting at best a world of moral gray, rife with compromise, ambiguity and personal ambivalence. We are, ultimately, delimited by decline, withering away and death.

So who makes out in such a world by Richler’s lights: those with some decency, more or less true to themselves, who see things for what they are, but who also see what is great and worthwhile—love and human excellence when that latter can be found such as in great art--who reject inauthenticity and phoniness, and are engaging. To be scorned: the up tight, the phonies, the sanctimonious and holier than thou, the arrivistes, the crass and money grubbing, the ideological, the xenophobic and identity enslaved, the essentially cruel and unkind and those unable to see what is great and worthwhile.

Richler long ago wrote a short account of his travels in Israel. He described bargaining for something with a shrewd Arab merchant, who, at the end of their bargaining—I’m remembering this from decades ago—winked or smiled knowingly to Richler in a firm and common understanding of men’s folly. In the merchant, in what they both understood about folly, Richler saw the best hope for Israeli and Arab alike.

Barney for Richler is a deeply flawed character who makes out, sort of. His “Version” isn’t just his falsified account of the death of Boogie, or even just his own iteration of his life. It is, rather, more largely, his version of life itself, life according to how he lives it. With all his raunchy, funny cruelty at the expense of Blair, with all his cruelty and emotional infidelity to Minnie Driver, for all his inattentiveness and selfishness in the face of Miriam’s trying to make a life for herself beyond him—but including him, for all his compromises with the great and worthwhile, the compromises completely captured by Totally Unnecessary Productions, despite his son calling him a “selfish prick,” he is, I argue, in the novel and the movie undoubtedly redeemable and indeed redeemed in Richler’s eyes.

That is evident in Miriam, after being away for a week, resolving that she loves him and wants to continue with him and wants immediately to make love with him until tshtf. And he is redeemed as set out in the very apt words of a Toronto critic that caught and captured my eye, Liam Lacey:

…What really sells it as a story is star Paul Giamatti's boisterous, wide-ranging and seductive performance. As a screen presence, Giamatti has a secret weapon beyond the obvious balding pate, paunch and bugged-out eyes: His voice, a mellifluously elegant instrument, suggests an inner refinement and contradicts what meets the eye. He’s the soul of a poet trapped in the shape of a clown, and to that extent a perfect Barney…

It's also evident in the high quality of his raffish friends, in his selfless generosities such as to Boogie and to Soulange, and in his capacious sensibility, so world-engaging.

There is a Mad Men aspect to the movie. Barney is a version of a sensibility of two generations ago: man the sole provider; man the world weary whiskey drinker and relentless cigar smoker finding truth and sanctuary in his own bonhomie, drinking with the boys, women as accessory to such men, being housewives, raising the children, being there to be nurturing all as against a more modern sensibility of women having the respect of their “partners” in their self fulfillment, of more sensitive, quiche eating, vegan, politically correct men such as Blair, who is both ludicrous and attractive—even if he is a a member of Al-Qaeda

I could go on about this movie, but, perversely, I’ll note what I didn’t like so much:

1. it at times drags;

2. it is often too synoptic, with too much stuff crammed in, although it's wonderful in the way it covers a lifetime of living from, in Barney’s case, his bohemian youth to the onset of his old age;

3. I don’t buy the whole courtship of Miriam, the falling for her, the wooing of her, the getting of her love. I find all that forced and not to be believed, lacking the simulation of life's real rythms. But the movie is wonderful in presenting their marriage over the decades. And I thinkt Rosamund Pike, after my initial concerns over the contrived soul mate attraction and courtship, is excellent as Barney’s long suffering, loving and always lovely wife, aging with subtle beauty, gravity and depth.

4. Wife 2 is way too broad, a caricature counting as attempted emotional theft, trying to steal emotions the movie has no right to. We’re meant to despise her as a crass, stupid, materially obsessed woman and reject her as does Barney. But she's not given a fighting chance in her uni-dimensionality. That’s cheap, facile movie making.

5. I don’t believe the break up with Miriam. After a marriage that long and that complicated, things just don’t turn on such a small, thin dime --one understandable, desperation-driven bout of meaningless sex--from love to separation and divorce. I know the movie sets it up in the courtship by Barney's promise never to cheat on Miriam as her father did on her mother, driving her to death, but I just don’t buy it when it happens. It, too, feetls forced and unbelievable.

6. Finally, maybe most irritating and exasperating, I think the whole scene leading to Boogie’s death too long and wholly unconvincing, resting on a psychologically unpersuasive foundation of events. And I think that Giamatti and Speedman are playing at being drunk and drunks in that scene. I don’t believe in their drunkenness. They can’t, for me, there, transcend their acting, so untypical for the overall terrific acting in the movie.


  1. The Toronto Star of 23Dec10 had an article by Robert Lantos on Barney's Version. In the article he quotes a line from the movie (which may or may not be in the book, though it is quintessentially Richler): "She has a beautiful rack and makes a flaky kugel -- and a lot of successful marriages were built on much less". The line still makes Lantos laugh, he says. But should it? It is remotely possible that marriages have been built on big tits and a well-cooked side dish but it is not conceivable that "successful" marriages have been built on that, or less -- unless one denudes the word "successful" of any meaning. ("Less" presumably means a marriage built on one or the other of big tits or a flaky casserole.) It is a poor writer who is willing to sacrifice reality for a clever line. Even granting that the "rack" and the "kugel" may be synechdoche for beautiful woman and a fantastic cook, to describe a marriage based solely on those assets as "successful" brings into question the values that for Richler might go to constitute success in marriage. Of course I question Richler's values generally.

  2. Might depend on what "successful" means and in what fictional or film context. That wasn't Richler's personal view; nor is it the view of a good marriage hailed by him in any of his novels or in the movie Barney's Version. I think that line was in the movie but I forget the context. Your acontextual criticism of the line doesn't make too much sense to me, and it's a bit humorless and overly literal as well, I think, respectfully.

    Exactly what values either emerging from his novels or personally held by him do you question?

  3. p.s I appreciate your comment, though. Good think I didn't miss it in the rivers of comment flooding this joint.

  4. As Homer Simpson says, "It's funny because it's true". My point was it was not funny because it's not true. As far as being "overly literal" goes, if reading the words on the page and trying to ascertain what the words actually mean is "overly literal" so be it. What bothers me is most is the fact that this joke (which, if one pauses to think about it for even a moment, is nonsense) has found its way around the Internet (acontextually) as an example of wit. Does no one pay attention to what the words are saying?

  5. Gee, what you say immediately above seems exactly outside and beside and remote from, hence impertinent to, any point I tried to put to you against what I took to be your crticism of Barney's Version or Richler. Your problem seems to me to be not with either of those erstwhile two but, rather, with humour itself.

    "Well I've still got my mind. Knock on wood! Come in!" When did onset dementia get funny?

    Your defence of your over-literality is, it also seems to me, and ironically, overly-literal.

    So what can I tell you!

    Peace be in your heart.

  6. OK, have it your way, whatever way that is.

  7. Good place to leave it before the blood starts running.