Barney's Version: A Rom-Com Without the Rom or the Com

I love how inaccurate the definitions "comedy" and "drama" can be. Most films have both, and usually more of one than another, but a good number of them are essentially dramedies, either due to a calculated balance or an inability to commit. (For instance, The Tourist, ostensibly an action thriller, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, presumably due to Depp's lackadaisical commitment to the laughably clich├ęd storyline.) So when I saw that Paul Giamatti had been nominated for a Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for Barney's Version, I just knew that this wouldn't be a pure comedy -- despite the trailer's focus on a Heartbreak Kid-style plot point, it also showed some sadly romantic longing. But I had no idea how depressing things would get, since the movie pretty much abandons comedy halfway through, and the romance never lasts.

The title refers to the fact that the book the movie was based on was written by the main character, Barney (Paul Giamatti), and as such is entirely biased. That premise is pretty much eliminated from the movie, and we are merely presented with the bizarre, occasionally laughable, usually unfortunate story of Barney's life, as he flashes back on it from his present-day existence. His days as a directionless member of a group of artist friends in Italy start out comical, with a shotgun wedding, but end in betrayal and death. His second marriage, to a Jewish princess, starts out humorously, with him meeting the woman of his dreams at the wedding and ham-fistedly courting her even while he's still married, but the marriage ends with betrayal (well, a more overt betrayal) and death, yet again. At this point, you just want Barney to live out the rest of his life with his dream girl, and for the most part he does... until it ends with betrayal, debilitating mental illness and death. So, to recap, all comedy leads to sadness, and all romance leads to misery. Life lessons, kids!

Giamatti is great in the movie, playing the comedy and the drama equally well, and he gets a lot of great moments to work with, since the movie changes its tone, direction and even time frame every 15 minutes. He plays Barney at twentysomething, fortysomething and sixtysomething with equal panache, and at various points he gets to be both the victim and the bad guy. (He's actually a bad guy a lot. He's kind of a jerk, really.) Plus, he's matched at every turn by Dustin Hoffman as his retired cop father, complete with mustache, who's always ready with a story about the job that will scandalize Barney's in-laws. Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike are serviceable as Barney's three wives -- a chain-smoking painter, a gossipy snob and a patient, loving, kinda dull radio producer -- and Scott Speedman is a lot of fun as Barney's carefree (later, heroin-addicted) writer friend.

I feel like the book's premise, that this is an incomplete, inaccurate story that needs revision (mostly explained through footnotes), could have been presented in the movie as a framing device -- although it would have been tricky, it would have unified and artistically obfuscated Barney's long, varied life story, which is told in a straightforward manner (although the make-up changes between 55 and 65 are so minimal as to be a bit confusing). In fact, there's only one unanswered question in the entire film -- a murder mystery, just to add one more genre to the mix -- and it apparently has nothing to do with Barney leaving it out or misremembering it. The filmmakers simply don't show us what happened, allowing us to come to our own conclusions. It's the most gripping moment in the movie, so it's disappointing when it's mostly forgotten for the remainder of the film, although we find out what really happened at the end. It seems like the main character going on trial for murder would have made for some meaty content, but I guess "courtroom drama" would have been one genre too many.

Did you see Barney's Version? Let us know what you thought below, then read more movie reviews here, and check out our Winter 2011 Movie Preview!

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