Friday, December 24, 2010

Deserving Better: The Film Adaptation of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version

In Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times, his new biography of author Mordecai Richler, Foran makes mention of the fact that noted Canadian producer Robert Lantos optioned Richler’s last novel Barney’s Version pretty much as soon as it was finished in 1998. The initial plan was for Richler to write the screenplay with his friend, director Ted Kotcheff, behind the camera. They had already worked together on two other Richler adaptations, the superb The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), and the uneven, but still highly engaging, Joshua Then and Now (1985). I’d like to think that in some alternate universe that pairing did indeed come to pass where the film adaptation of Barney’s Version came out before Mordecai died in 2001 and garnered praise as one of the finest Canadian movies ever (and picking up a slew of awards, besides). But, alas, in our real world, Lantos wasn't happy with Richler’s drafts and after the writer died, the movie took a long time coming before finally seeing the light of day in 2010. Unfortunately, it did so saddled with a mediocre director, a neophyte screenwriter, and with far too many significant and damaging changes made from the book.
Barney’s Version tells the sad, tragic but also deeply funny story of Barney Panofsky, a veteran TV producer, who, as the book begins, is writing a novel about his turbulent life, including his three marriages, the vanished friend he is suspected, by some, of murdering, and his inveterate pranks and provocations. Of course since it’s his "version" of his life, it is suspect. Not least because, unbeknown to everyone else, Alzheimer's is beginning to affect Barney’s recollections, thus rendering his manuscript doubly questionable. Beautifully and sensitively written, the imaginative Barney’s Version takes the concept of the "unreliable narrator" to new heights and in the process offers up one of Richler’s most memorable characters, a man who has made a colossal mess of his life, but still perseveres in trying to make sense of it all.

The novel provides a potent recipe for a faithful film adaptation, but Barney’s Version only occasionally scales the heights of Richler’s brilliant book. Unlike Kotcheff, who was able to bring Richler’s scrappy, roughhewn and roguish Montreal to cinematic life, director Richard J. Lewis (Whale Music) fails to impart much atmosphere to the film; his vision/version of the city is sterile and undistinguished. (It likely doesn’t help that he has been toiling solely in TV since his film debut with Whale Music in 1994.).
Paul Giamatti
As for the changes made in the film by screenwriter Michael Konyves, they’re alternately baffling and unnecessary. For one thing, Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is no longer writing a tell-all book, thus reducing and simplifying him to just being a victim of Alzheimer’s. For another, the film has been updated to the present, instead of the nineties, thus altering too many of the telling details that helped define Barney in the book. Gone, for example, are the references to Quebec’s language laws, which restrict the province’s Anglophone’s rights and became one of Barney’s bête noires. Barney also decamps to Rome from Montreal to find his muse, instead of heading off to Paris, as he does in the book (Richler himself spent some time there but went off to London to find himself as a writer in 1950.) This may seem, on one level, a minor plot change, but it ultimately doesn't ring true. Going to Italy, instead of England or France, was not usually the rite of passage for aspiring writers from North America. They also made those landmark treks in the fifties and sixties, not in the seventies as they do in this movie.
Producer Robert Lantos
The Italian scenes in Barney’s Version are, I suspect, a sop by producer Lantos to the country that has made the book into a massive hit. Other changes, such as excising the references to the language laws, seem to be a nod to the Americans who generally demonstrate a complete lack of interest in Canada’s unique political situation. Those alterations are annoying but harmless. Other revisions though hint at something darker, a flattening out and sanitizing of Richler’s book, which drew no quarter in its giving offense to everyone from the Jewish community to militant black nationalists. The film seems determined not to offend anyone lest box office, especially in the all important U.S., be adversely affected. (The copious Jewish content of the book is kept intact as that’s no longer seen as verboten by Hollywood types.)
Thus, Cedric, Barney’s black writer friend (Clé Bennett), who later morphs into a virulent anti-Semitic nationalist who calls himself Ismail ben-Yussuf and becomes the subject of many of Barney’s most inventive and outrageous diatribes and jokes, is dropped from the movie early - before his radical life changes. In doing so, they remove a prickly and complex aspect of the book. As for the character of  Irv Nussbaum (a perfectly cast Howard Jerome), the Jewish federation head who practically salivates every time there’s an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish institution and knows that this loathsome act will bring in more donations by fearful Jews, he has been trimmed considerably; Irv's interactions with Barney are practically non-existent. (FYI, the Beth Zion synagogue, which is targeted in the film, happens to be the shul I grew up attending in Montreal.) Even the descriptions of Barney’s torrid sex life with Miriam (Rosamund Pike), wife number three, are neutered though there a few mildly raunchy scenes involving ‘the Second Mrs. Panofsky’ (Minnie Driver).
Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman
Because so much of the book’s juices have been drained, it’s left up to the cast to try to salvage what they can from the weak material. And, to a degree, Giamatti does just that. Though the shadings of his character have been considerably narrowed - Barney’s not nearly as interesting on screen as he was in the book - Giamatti's still consistently good, and no more so than when he plays opposite Dustin Hoffman, as his father Izzy. Their chemistry as father and son is palpable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film really only comes to life when Hoffman’s on screen. Izzy, that rarity in  Jewish Canada, an ex-cop, who’s prone to visits to massage parlours and a profane speaker, is oblivious to how he comes across to others. The role offers Hoffman a priceless part to play and he runs with it. (In one uproarious scene, he gives Barney a gun for his second wedding, thoughtfully wrapped in Star of David paper.) He may remind viewers of Alan Arkin’s equally unrestrained patriarch, Reuben Shapiro, from Joshua Then and Now, only Izzy is a little less of an instigator than Reuben was and a bit more innocent in intent.
Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver
The film’s women, aka the three Mrs. Panofksys, don’t impress quite as much. Rachelle Lefevre overacts as Clara, Barney’s first wife, who tricks him into marriage by telling him her pregnancy is his fault. I’m not a fan of Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting, The Governess), who’s usually prone to excessive emoting, but no one could have salvaged this shrewish Jewish-American caricature. As for Rosamund Pike (Fugitive Pieces), who plays Miriam, the woman Barney falls in love with on the day of his wedding to the second Mrs. Panofsky (a plot lifted from Richler’s own life, when he fell in love with his second wife Florence), she’s pretty but bland. You never really understand what Barney sees in her, which is almost fatal to the film, since their relationship, unlike in the book, is the fulcrum on which the story turns. And the talented Scott Speedman as Boogie, Barney’s childhood friend, whom he's suspected of murdering, tries his utmost, but is never quite convincing as a Jewish junkie. There are also a couple of cameos, by the likes of Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, but they’re so fleeting as to be to almost invisible.
Director Richard Lewis
I’m not sure why Lantos didn't trust his instincts to make a movie more faithful to its source since he's the guy who produced Joshua Then and Now and had the smarts to grab the rights to Barney’s Version in the first place. He usually knows what’s he doing, but he may losing his mojo (or his confidence), having already imposed an offensive happy ending on Jeremy Podeswa’s previously fine adaptation of Anne Michaels' Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces (2007). Lantos is on record as saying that he could hear Mordecai’s voice, since the two were friends (albeit not close ones in life), chiding him over the previous screenplays that were being written before the one used in the film. Finally, he sensed that the late author was happy with the new adaptation. If that’s the case, I can only imagine how much worse the previously rejected film scripts were.
Barney’s Version is not as thoroughly mediocre as the 2007 TV adaptation of St. Urbain’s Horseman, based on one of Richler’s most celebrated books. That one fell flat in every way possible, from its lackluster/overdone performances to its unconvincing set pieces. But Barney’s few high points only cast the sluggishness of rest of the movie into sharp relief. I can’t think that anyone who loved the terrific book could warm up to such a pallid film. Mordecai deserved better.
-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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