Early reviews of Barney’s Version (the film) prepared me for the book’s most amusing attributes – its skewering of Quebec nationalist politics and Canadian cultural nationalism – having been left on the cutting room floor. After all, converting a 417-page account of one man’s life into a two-hour film demands some streamlining.
But there’s streamlining and then there’s the hatchet job. I’m sorry to say, despite the smattering of applause from the nearly-full screening I attended, the film is more like the latter.
Sadly, the delicate artistic balance of the novel has been destroyed in this new “Version,” this drunken lurch nowhere better demonstrated than in the film’s treatment of Jews and women. And Jewish women, in particular.
The novel, a fictive autobiographical confession, “the true story of my wasted life,” has a largely tripartite structure, with books based on each of Barney Panofsky’s three marriages.
Now the triangle is an ancient, mystical, and frustrating form – just ask any teenager struggling through trig 101– and still holds great attraction to us today, as morbid interest in Aniston, Pitt, and Jolie; Charles, Diana, and Camilla; or the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, demonstrates. In Barney’s case, though, these three wives are in no way a triangle: They are guideposts in the life of a man on a mortal journey, searching for meaning and love. (Hmm, perhaps more like the Father-Son than I thought …).
The first Panofsky wife is Clara Chambers (actually Charnofsky, played by Rachelle Lefevre), the hedonist of his youth, a first class fucked up bitch. In the book, she is a talented artist whose modest genius is hugely inflated by the feminist commentary that grows around her suicide – a knock-off of Sylvia Plath, with Barney cast as Ted Hughes. In the movie, Clara’s talent is not discussed and the fame that lives after her, redacted. Not so Clara’s father, played by Saul Rubinek, who appears on the heels of her death as a bearded Orthodox Jew, unmasked in short order as another in the long line of Richler’s nasty too-Jewish characters.
The second Mrs. Panofsky, archetypal yenta of a Jewish American Princess, is brayingly brought to life by the incomparable Minnie Driver – who really should have been cast as Miriam, the third in Panofsky’s marital hat trick.
Driver is beautiful, a great actress, and she looks plausibly Jewish … which brings me to the crux of my beef with the liberties taken with this celluloidization of a novel: In Richler’s version, Barney’s third wife is Miriam Greenberg, clearly a Jewish woman who drives a stake through the shiksa goddess motif favoured in novels by Jewish men of a certain age and stature. (And not just of a certain age either: The all-round repulsiveness of the Jewish woman is still common cultural currency, as throw-away lines in The Social Network demonstrate).
In this film, Miriam Greenberg becomes Miriam Grant (luminously played by Rosamund Pike). This stylish, classy and sexy shiksa’s wedding ceremony is performed by a man wearing neither head covering nor tallit, the nuptials clearly non-Jewish (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”)
Of course, this not the film’s only flaw – it forgets the murder-mystery/urban legend plot line for an hour; it cries out for Barney’s confessional voiceover (rather than the stilted info dump conversations it employs); and the resolution of the murder is so heavy-handed it appears aimed at imbeciles (with apologies to imbeciles). Also, Barney’s paunch in his 20s is almost as noticeable as in his 60s. Which brings us to another eternal motif in the story, that of Beauty and the Beast (which was, according to Charles Foran, how Richler referred to his relationship with his beloved wife Florence).
Recasting Miriam Greenberg as Miriam Grant resurrects the shiksa goddess, just when I finally thought it was safe for this Jewish woman to head back to the movies. Unfortunately, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
So I guess my question is, whose odious version of Jewish womanhood is this? Screenwriter Michael Konyves’, producer Robert Lantos’, or director Richard J. Lewis’?
Inquiring yentas want to know.
As A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times: “In spite of Mr. Giamatti’s ferociously energetic performance ‘Barney’s Version’ never figures out just who Barney is. In Richler’s pages he is above all a voice – profane, sophisticated, tender, mean and funny – and the filmmakers prove unable to compensate for its absence … in attempting to honor the spirit of the book, they extinguish it. It is a wild, unruly novel of character, in which the character himself is at once incorrigible and irresistible. The film tames and sentimentalizes him, and in showing respect for Barney’s author turns his creation into something unforgivably respectable.”
The problem with this version of Barney is that we have no idea WHAT the luminous, redeeming wife—the only “good Jew” in the novel--could possibly have seen in him. And frankly, in this film, that’s an even bigger mystery than Boogie’s disappearance.