The Self-Hating Hero, by Robert Hornak

7 Feb

Barney’s Version, based on a book I haven’t read, isn’t a very good movie. It’s a kind of legitimization of self-hatred and an apotheosis of The Curmudgeon As Suitable Suitor. The mid-movie revelation of the main character’s looming Alzheimers and the last minute litany of good things bestowed upon mankind by him all seem tacked on to make sure we get the point, which is this: there’s nobody in the world so ensnared by their loathing of themselves and others that they can’t be redeemed by a swelling orchestral cloud over their backlit headstone.

Barney Panofsky is handed a book that details the irrefutable facts behind a murder that the author says Barney got away with. This inspires a joy-ride down Barney’s memory lane, wrinkle-in-timing the major plot points of his life into a self-serving defense that the filmmakers hope exonerates him. The defense almost works, since the main character exudes a strange, likeable force that can only be called “Paul Giamatti”. If only a movie could rest its merit solely on the proficiency of the lead actor. Barney is airlifted from his negative excess only by virtue of Giamatti’s innate, askew likeability. The actor essentially triumphs over the character he’s portraying. Giamatti acts from the corners of his eyes in a way that makes his caustic dismissals and shrugging scowls seem less like direct hits on their intended receivers. In fact, his entire demeanor communicates a kind of “so it goes” resignation that he alone must be the one who notices the stupidity of the world. But that isn’t noble.

The movie seems happy to confuse our attitude toward Barney. It goes to certain lengths to make him wholly unlikable, but then tries to warm us to him by making his blackest moments funny. We learn that he’s only marrying his first wife, an unpleasant and shallow strumpet whom he (and the filmmaker) clearly hates, because he’s made her pregnant. It’s classic chivalry spiked with a lethal shot of beleaguered duty. Then, after the vows, he learns the baby isn’t his. Giamatti absorbs the news quietly, with eyes at half-mast, cueing us to treat the moment lightly. This makes us complicit in the cruelty. Then, when he decks the real father, it’s meant to be a comic high point. But in this moment, we don’t learn anything about Barney that we didn’t already know. Instead it serves only as a lesson for the viewer on what is not important (other characters’ inner lives) and what is (any of Barney’s soulful stabs at movie romance, like chasing down a love-at-first-sight on the day of his wedding).

There’s nothing in the action that makes us think this would be a man we’d want to actually be around, but the movie rolls out several ultimately dishonest and cavalier attempts to paint him as at least unstained by his own misanthropy. Barney’s flashbacks include facts, in three key life moments, that turn otherwise deeply blackening events into moments of oblique innocence. 1) When he gets a desperate note from his first wife, who he regrets marrying, he is three days too late to save her from suicide – but only because his friend left the note buried under cluttered papers. 2) When he wants to divorce his second wife in order to marry his third, he gets the chance to do it “honorably” after his best friend sleeps with the second wife – thus allowing Barney to smugly hide behind her infidelity, circumventing any need for confrontation. 3) When he then lumbers after the best friend with a loaded gun, an act that leads to the friend’s death by drowning, it’s only after Barney has tripped over his own feet with the gun – so the act is not a fulfillment of his desire to kill, but of a freak accident.

This series of off-the-hooks, revealed in relatively quick succession, subverts a desirable action-consequence-redemption arc for the character in favor of a weak accident-opportunism-forever innocent arc. But that state of the script, in time, cues a deeper hope vis-a-vis the movie’s title. Maybe, one reasons, if a story is told mostly in flashbacks, presumably filtered through the memory prism of a man who is succumbing to Alzheimers, and the title is Barney’s Version, then there’s the outside glimmer of hope that what we’re really seeing is not what truly happened, but what is literally only a version of the truth, one twisted by denial and disease into a virtual whitewash. Had the movie expanded its ambition beyond mere character study, we may have been treated to a study on the fallibility of personal biography. But it’s only wishful thinking – the movie never works past its initial curiosity, and all we’re left with is a well-acted but languidly myopic portrait of the cynic as an old man.

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