A different version

Soon to be released in the US, ‘Barney’s Version’ is a flawed yet fulfilling film about the late iconoclast Mordechai Richler.

movie (photo credit: takashi seida)
(photo credit: takashi seida)
“BARNEY’S VERSION,” based on the quasiautobiographical novel of the same name by novelist Mordechai Richler, is a highly entertaining film that faithfully reflects the acerbic wit and outrageous humor that were the hallmarks of the late Canadian Jewish satirist.
But there’s something missing.
An iconoclastic novelist, essayist and screenwriter, Richler was uncompromising in his portrayal of Jewish hustlers, whining Canadian nationalists, narrow-minded Quebec separatists and just about everyone else who crossed his path during his prolific 50-year writing career, from the early 1950s to his death in 2001.
He was “politically incorrect” when it was not fashionable and Richler earned more than his share of enemies. The Montreal Jewish community ostracized him after the publication of his most famous novel, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1959), in which the single-minded protagonist is described (in the words of the hero’s uncle) as “a little Jew-boy on the make.” In the 1970s, after he lampooned Quebec’s Draconian language laws that discriminate against English speakers in the New Yorker magazine, he needed bodyguards because of the death threats from French Canadian separatists.
So any viewer familiar with what Richler represented expects to be deeply offended, or at least a bit embarrassed. Sitting back and enjoying the unfolding story of the life of successful TV producer Barney Panofsky – despite the compelling performance by Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) – is somewhat disappointing.
True, some of the trademark targets are there, including a materialistic, snobbish Jewish family and an anti-Semitic French Canadian police detective. But the barbs seem tame, in part because the literary and film worlds have progressed since the days when Richler was among the first writers in Canada willing to stick his neck out and stab away at powerful figures, “letting the chips fall where they may,” as he frequently said in interviews. Since then, a long list of self-critical and contentious artists have picked up where he left off. In fact, cameo appearances in the film by Canadian filmmakers Atom Egoyan (“Ararat”), David Cronenberg (“Eastern Promises”) and Denys Arcand (“The Decline of the American Empire”), seem to be their way of acknowledging Richler’s seminal role in paving the way for a more liberal-minded cultural environment.
YET THOUGH VIEWERS MAY feel let down knowing that the audience is getting off the hook, taunting readers and viewers was not Richler’s only preoccupation. Many of the sage themes, including the power of romantic love and the strength and comfort that can be drawn from family and friends that wove their way through his works are strongly present in the film. And they give “Barney’s Version” its poignancy and deeper layers of meaning.
It is indeed Barney Pankofsky’s search for true romantic love that drives the comic drama back and forth through episodes from Barney’s three marriages. His first marriage to Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a voluptuous but flaky seductress, occurs out of obligation rather than love when he finds out that she is pregnant and believes he is the father of her child. The marriage ends abruptly when he discovers that the real father is actually one of Barney’s best friends. But, instructively, the friendship between the two men endures.
His second attempt at love brings him into the lair of Mrs. P. (Minnie Driver), a Jewish Canadian Princess whose assimilated father sneers at Barney’s working-class roots. This relationship leads to the film’s pivotal scene: during the wedding reception between Barney and Mrs. P., Barney sees Miriam (Rosamund Pike) for the first time. It is love at first sight.
The free-spirited Barney, unwilling to hold back what he feels, goes over to Miriam and begins to court her. When Miriam leaves the reception to head home to New York, Barney chases her all the way to the Montreal train station while his new bride wonders what has happened to him. Barney eventually wins Miriam over and marries her, then loses her because, like all of Richler’s characters, he has his flaws. And those weaknesses are laid bare in the film, from the first close-up of Barney as he pours a glass of whisky. In addition to his heavy drinking, Barney is addicted to watching hockey and is insensitive to his wife’s career and social needs. The failings take their toll and the marriage breaks up.
But their love persists right through to the film’s bittersweet ending.
The strongest part of the film, however, is the endearing relationship between Barney and his father, Izzy, played by Dustin Hoffman. As Richler telegraphed in many of his novels, you stand by your father no matter who he is or what he does. So what if your father has links to crime, as Duddy Kravitz’s father did. So what if your father makes a fool of himself at your wedding reception, as Izzy does when he tells the rabbi’s wife an off-color joke.
And you always stand by your son, as Izzy does, when Barney comes to tell him he has decided to divorce his second wife, despite her wealth, in favor of Miriam, his true love.
THE WARM, HOMEY CHARACTERIZATION that Hoffman breathes into Izzy is a very important contribution to the film. Hoffman has played a large number of diverse roles in his long career, but here for the first time he gets a chance to play a warmhearted, folksy Jewish father, who even wears a Hebrew-lettered chai around his neck.
“You done good, boychik,” he says to Barney approvingly, as he looks around at Barney’s children playing on the lawn at Barney’s cottage, perched over a picturesque Quebec lake.
There is something about the unpretentious earthiness that Hoffman brings to the part that makes it unimaginable that anyone else could have played the role. Yet Hoffman initially turned down that role when producer Robert Lantos offered it to him. In his first conversation with him, Lantos tells The Report in a phone interview, Hoffman was very forthright. “He said to me: ‘Why would I want to do this part? It’s way too small for me. I know I’m too old but I should be playing Barney, that’s whose film it is. Anyone could play the father.’”
But Lantos persevered and, after persuading Hoffman to read the book, he found a way to convince him. “Dustin complained that the script left out the scene at the wedding where Barney’s father tells the obscene joke about the Hungarian Nazi and the hairspray can erection,” recalls Lantos, chuckling. Lantos asked screenwriter Michael Konyves to add the scene and sent Hoffman a revised copy of the script.
The next day Hoffman called to say that he would take the part.
Getting Hoffman to play in the film was only one of many details that Lantos tenaciously pursued.
“Richler was somebody whom I looked up to, one of my literary gurus,” says Lantos, who first came to admire Richler’s writings as a high school student in Montreal and later became a close friend, collaborating with Richler in adapting his novel “Joshua, Then and Now” to the screen in 1984.
“Richler created characters who, no matter how flawed, always had a deep humanity that seeped through and were so recognizable,” says Lantos, whose soft-spoken voice contains a distinctive trace of a Hungarian accent.
LANTOS, 61, IS ONE OF CANADA’S leading film producers, the creator of more than 35 features, including several Academy Award-nominated films (“The Sweet Hereafter” and “Being Julia”). But back in the early 1960s, when the teenage Lantos immigrated with his family from Hungary to Montreal’s teeming working-class St. Urbain Street neighborhood, he experienced firsthand the travails that serve as the background for many of Richler’s novels.
“What made Richler such a great writer was that he created characters that were so specific to the place where he lived (St. Urbain Street) that they became universal,” he observes with irony. “And because the characters he knew best were Jewish, that’s whom he had the most fun with.
“But he was perfectly egalitarian in dishing it out [to other ethnic groups],” he adds, laughing quietly.
Discussing the condemnation that Richler endured in Montreal’s Jewish community when his first novels were published, Lantos notes that “the Jewish community has forgiven him long ago. I think we Jews have to know that part of being Jewish is being able to laugh at ourselves, including our own quirks,” he says.
One of those quirks, parodied in the film, relates to the high-pressure tactics North American Jews sometimes resort to in order to fundraise for Israel.
Lantos himself was embroiled in a controversy surrounding Israel during the period when he was shooting “Barney’s Version.” At the time, in the fall of 2009, a group of filmmakers and academics attempted to mount a boycott of Israeli films at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lantos, cell phone in hand, on the set of “Barney’s Version” in Montreal, used breaks in between camera setups to lead a counter-campaign, which eventually defused the attempted boycott.
Referring to the pointed political criticism of Israel that Richler expressed in many of his essays, Lantos admits that he and Richler “weren’t always on the same page.” But towards the end of his life, Lantos notes, Richler’s tone changed. “If you read his later writings you will see that he softened, and that foremost was a deep love for Israel.”
Lantos actually started working on “Barney’s Version” while Richler was still alive with the first draft of the screenplay written by Richler himself. The collaboration between the two involved lunchtime meetings at Montreal’s Ritz Carleton Hotel, where the wedding scene in “Barney’s Version” takes place. Recalling those “glorious meals,” Lantos verifies that the harddrinking Barney Panofsky in the film is an authentic reflection of the famous author’s lifestyle.
“We would start with a double Macallan’s single malt whisky, followed by a shared bottle of wine and then have a double Remy [cognac] with dessert. He was completely unaffected by it. I was younger than he but there was no way I could keep up,” Lantos recollects.
In his pursuit of authenticity, Lantos was also determined to make sure that the soundtrack contained both a voice and song that would convey the romantic theme of the film as well as something of the Montreal cultural milieu. “It seemed fitting that Leonard Cohen’s music would be serenading Barney,” says Lantos.
The song chosen, “I’m Your Man,” with its keynote phrase, “I’ll do anything you ask me to,” turned out to be an apt choice, but as Lantos recalls, putting Richler and Cohen together was not something that would always have worked.
“The two ‘Canadian Jewish giants of the arts’ had some run-ins, and after one quarrel [when Richler criticized Cohen’s refusal to accept a literary award from the Canadian government], they nearly came to blows,” Lantos relates.
As Cohen and Richler had reconciled with each other, Lantos was able to enlist Cohen’s participation. “He was one of the first to see an early version [of the film] and he gave it his blessings.”
Lantos worked on “Barney’s Version” for more than 10 years, procuring support from five different screenwriters. Explaining why he was so adamant about getting the film just right, he notes that it was important for him to obtain the blessings of someone other than Cohen.
“The film was more than a project, it was a mission. I felt that I had become the custodian of a great man’s greatest book and I kept hearing a voice saying, ‘It’s not good enough and that he’ll get back at me.’” He adds, “And if you know his novels, you know he’s a vengeful sort of guy.”