Science has proven on a number of occasions that the human brain’s relationship to fiction is a fluid one. The more times somebody tells a story, the more fortified and visually descriptive it becomes. One study showed that upon retelling a story about digging a hole, most candidates will add the word ‘black’ to their version. Barney’s Version, indeed all forms of biography, are about boiling down a lifetime of information into a collection of important anecdotes. These will be the most colourful, moving or unlikely, and convert what should be just a history, into a kind of legend. The moments a person cherishes or agonises over, are the most likely to succeed them, however erroneous or flamboyant. Whilst Barney’s Version is a collection of sincere memories made grandiose by their retelling.
A biographical film, Barney’s Version is a jumbled album of the cruellest, brightest, and most romantic events in the life of one Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). There are few constants in Barney’s tumultuous existence. One is heavy drinking (a sort of awe is to be had for him on his wedding night, when he can still flirt after a dozen shots), and one is Grumpy’s bar, a “boy’s club” retreat for Barney and his father (Dustin Hoffman’s cheeky ageing cop). In between, Barney’s life is a merry-go-round of people and places. Over forty years, Barney has two jobs, lives on two continents, has two children, marries and loses three wives, and is implicated in the murder of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman).
The visual decadence of Barney’s Version amplifies every second of its drama. Despite the fact that Barney re-visits many of the important locations of his life, each subsequent location feels like a whole new world. There is the sense that no prop is used twice, and Barney is a wealthy man, so his possessions do not number in the few. A mix of timeless and period costuming adds to a sense of romance, and many of the outfits worn by venomous first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) and Minnie Driver’s unnamed “jewish princess” are majestically dated.
Barney’s Version would be described as a film loaded with flashbacks, if it weren’t for the fact that there is no sense of when the ‘present’ is, in which Barney reminisces. The film is a patchwork of memories threaded together by their relevance to one another, rather than chronology. Tangents become plotlines, characters appear and disappear. In the absence of superimposed text (e.g. Central Park, New York, 1990), the audience measures the timing of Barney’s memories by his age, in wrinkles and grey hairs. His ageing process is spectacularly realised. Barney and his leading lady Miriam (Rosamund Pike), are incarnated at innumerable stages of their lives, each timed aged accordingly. The difference between one scene and the next might be one crow’s foot or a whole beer gut, but at every stage of the game the makeup is seamless, so much so that it was impossible to tell during which Barney, if any, Paul Giamatti appeared without makeup. This is an elegant alternative to casting conspicuously different actors to play each age (Remember Titanic?), or simply doing a hack job on the age spots (Winona Ryder at the end of Edward Scissorhands).
The title Barney’s Version is a curious choice. It evokes a defensive position – suggesting Barney is telling the truth where others might have lied. There is no shortage of possible contentious events, however this appears to be a reference to murder case. Whilst Barney was acquitted, a retired investigating officer publishes a book damning Barney. The murder plotline weaves its way through the film as one of many, alongside romances, jobs and children, so it seems unlikely that the title refers only to the case. The word ‘Version’ may also imply some kind of American Beauty-like self-narration, or like in last year’s Gainsbourg, reflect a warped, fantasy version of actual events. Barney’s Version is neither, rather existing as a realistic, objective range of self-contained events starring Barney. Whilst these represent Barney’s memories, they are as clear as though caught on camera (which… they were). Even though they are Barney’s memories, or in fact because they are internal memories, they in no way veil what really happened in order to exonerate or glorify Barney himself.
The beauty of Barney’s Version is that the experience of seeing it closely resembles the way memory is formed. The audience is totally immersed in each chapter as it is occurring, yet built in to each vignette are one or two memorable snippets of dialogue or visual prompts, which later come to symbolise that time in Barney’s life. In retrospect the film seems long and jam-packed, but never boring, and its conclusion is very satisfying. Paul Giamatti is spectacular, appearing as many different Barneys – each with a different level of enthusiasm, wisdom and happiness.
But wait –
With all this intriguing detail to write about, I almost forgot one very important thing: Barney’s Version is funny as hell.