As I stated in one of my first posts, one of the films that I eagerly await is the screen version of Mordecai Richler’s 1998 novel, Barney’s Version. Having now read the novel, Barney’s Version has pretty much jumped to the top of my ‘must see’ list for 2010. Richler’s novel is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while. The story’s narrator, Barney Panofsky (portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film), is a loveable curmudgeon. The premise of the story is that a former friend and longtime rival of Barney’s has just released a biography of Barney that portrays his career and personal life in an unflattering light, and it alleges all sorts of dubious things about Barney, namely that he is a murderer. Barney decides to offer his “riposte” to Terry McIver’s biography and set the record straight by offering his own version of his life’s story. Barney’s observations on life are drolly critical of just about every person, or race of persons, that he has encountered during his lifetime. Barney’s take on contemporary Canadian culture is frequently honest, if not brutally so, and it often arises in the most comical situations. In fact, Barney’s Version is such a funny novel that I had to force myself to stay home and read it, as I had one too many embarrassing moments in which I disturbed other patrons at Starbucks or Bridgehead with my frequent bursts of boisterous and, at times, snorting laughter.
The film also features Dustin Hoffman in a supporting role as Barney’s father, Izzy. The Izzy of Richer’s novel is a crass and boorish man and will surely provide Hoffman with several over the top scenes and dirty one-liners. Also joining the cast are Canadian actors Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood: Speedman as Barney’s friend Boogie, for whose murder Barney is tried and acquitted, and Greenwood as Blair, a rival for Miriam’s affection.
The film seems perfectly cast, but one concern regarding how Barney’s Version is brought to the screen is how the filmmakers will replicate the form of the novel. Much of the novel’s humor comes from Barney’s first person account of the events, which will presumably be transcribed as voice-over narrative. Additionally, the novel contains numerous editorial notes by Barney’s son, Michael. The notes provide many laughs, as they are usually irrelevant or because Michael seems so concerned with refuting the minor details of his father’s life that he often misses the point of Barney’s narrative. Hopefully, the filmmakers will reproduce the self-reflexive quality of the novel, and if they do, the film should be quite a success. Ironically, Barney’s Version already has a bit of a meta-filmic nature, as its writer, Michael Konyves, has mostly written B-level TV movies. The director, Richard Lewis, has been more successful with his work on “CSI” and “North of 60”, as well as the Canadian film Whale Music.
Finally, I’m interested to see how much the film retains the Canadian-ness of the novel. Most of Barney’s Version takes place in Montréal – the ‘present day’ portions occur during the 1995 Quebec referendum. Additionally, Barney’s anecdotes capture the tensions between English and French speaking Canadians (particularly Quebecers) better than any other Canadian novel. The novel is also very conscious of Canada’s reputation as a hockey culture. Barney’s story is littered with stats on his favorite Canadiens and like any Canadian not from Toronto, he has nothing but contempt for the Maple Leafs. Mordecai Richler also makes several astute associations between hockey mania and masculinity, especially when Barney schemes to escape his own wedding to attend an at-home game of the Stanley Cup finals. A hockey score also proves the hook for which Barney finds himself “irretrievably in love” with Miriam. The novel also provides a comical portrayal of Montréal’s Jewish community, as Barney takes much pleasure in smoked meat sandwiches, neighborhood heritage groups, and other cultural past times (perhaps the film will be an accessible/tolerable Canadian response to A Serious Man, which I thought was the worst film of 2009). Barney’s Version also reflects the idyllic value of cottage life in Canada and frequently uses it in association with Barney’s view of Canada as an ever-changing nation. From the aging man’s perspective, it’s often a hilarious portrait of the cultural landscape.If the film is even half as funny as the novel, Barney’s Version should be a success. At the very least, it could provide some of the highlight performances of the year and could even be a rare mainstream hit for Canadian film. Barney’s Version is not due for release until Winter 2010, so there is ample time to read Richler’s novel beforehand.