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As an actor, Paul Giamatti has remained predictable, at least for the majority of his career. Blessed with a certain carriage of rumpled intensity, his roles have gravitated toward men of rage or duplicity, often embodying eye-bulging discontent. However, when the actor finds a special role that demands dimension and an overall throttling of disease, Giamatti is unstoppable. "Barney's Version" offers such a challenge, gifting Giamatti a role of immense depth and mystery to explore in this outstanding, unpredictable drama.
An oaf with a taste for romance, Barney (Paul Giamatti) hasn't had much luck with women, watching his first wife (Rachelle Lefevre) kill herself during a stay in Rome during the 1970s, while his second wife (Minnie Driver) cheated with junkie pal Boogie (Scott Speedman). Of course, little of his problems, including a detective's (Mark Addy) allegation that Barney killed Boogie, matter much to the television producer, who's found true love with the elusive Miriam (Rosamund Pike), developing an honest relationship with someone he actually respects. As life goes on, Barney tries unsuccessfully to halt his impetuous behavior, often seeking guidance from his father, former cop Izzy (Dustin Hoffman).
"Barney's Version" is adapted from the best-selling book by Mordecai Richler, a story constructed in a specific manner that reflects the horrifying change in the lead character's mental stamina though the years. It's a challenging tale of betrayals, mistakes, and the brutality of time, yet screenwriter Michael Konyves does an outstanding job keeping the intricate elements of the narrative in play, preserving the literary progression of the piece without breaking the tale down into episodic bites. The film stays on target, charting Barney's life through failed marriages and various domestic aggravations, keeping close to the character without sacrificing the specific beats of his torment, embodied by a range of friends and family he can't seem to live without, despite his best intentions.
Director Richard J. Lewis also keeps to a smooth, steady visual pace, holding on Giamatti as the actor finds a remarkable range of reactions, befitting a character who can't stay out of trouble. There isn't much work to be done with this gifted cast, yet Lewis creates needed tension out of Boogie's death and Barney's combustible temperament, creating the illusion of evil deeds spread out over his life, fashioning an odd mystery about a man who isn't what he seems. Lewis plays the film as a love story and domestic drama, doing justice to the complex nature of the writing by keeping viewers on their toes. The best compliment I can pay to "Barney's Version" is that I never really knew where it was going, remaining consistently surprised by its emotional resonance (potentially mawkish turns are gracefully explored) and biting sense of humor.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation handles the differences in time and mental states quite handily, with a crisp read of the film's make-up and period design, offering natural skintones and a solid feel for various hues, with everything cleanly pronounced. Details on costumes and hairstyles are superb, really capturing the differences in character. Shadow detail is commendable, supporting the evening sequences, while pulling detail out of complex interiors. The BD is best served with close-ups, with the gritty particulars of this world allowed depth and clarity.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix keeps the cacophony of voices in solid working order, offering the satisfactory read of aging and emotional intensity, with a comfortable separation of actors working accents. The dialogue is crisply presented and primarily frontal, with nothing lost in the verbal crossfire, provided a more circular presentation during group scenes. Soundtrack cuts sound deep, with a commendable handle on low-end particulars to bring the eras to life. Scoring is sedate, but useful during more delicate acts of confession. Atmospherics are generous, capturing European street life with a pronounced bustle.
English and English SDH subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Richard J. Lewis, writer Michael Konyves, and producer Robert Lantos (who joins the gang about 25 minutes in) benefits from an energetic air of exploration, with the trio happily pointing out the details of the frame, focusing on specific efforts from the cast and crew. Talk of adaptation challenges is offered, along with thespian contributions to behavior and appearance, but most of the chat goes to the effort of production, walking through the day-to-day business of building a motion picture. It's an informative, conversational effort.
"Behind the Scenes" (10:25) is a standard promotional featurette, featuring cast and crew interviews dissecting motivation and dramatic intention. Film clips pad the experience. Some BTS footage is offered, but not enough to convince.
"Mordecai Richler" (3:18) is a brief conversation with the author, shown here in a supremely relaxed state, smoking and playing pool.
"On the Red Carpet" (4:19) offers some hurried conversations on life and love with the cast and crew, captured at the film's AFI Fest premiere.
"92nd Street Y Q&A with Paul Giamatti and Annette Insdorf" (35:08) is a wonderfully vivid discussion with the actor about his career and "Barney's Version," exploring his process and interpretation in front of an appreciative audience.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
In the end, the film is at its finest with Giamatti, who provides a rich take on Barney's lifelong battle with himself. The performance is fiery, but also strangely vulnerable, creating impressive chemistry with Pike, who delivers a lovely feeling of stability and intelligence as Miriam comes to challenge Barney, building a life he feels compelled to destroy. The acting is uniformly marvelous here, filling the film with a critical sense of community to best isolate the schlub stuck in the middle of it all, serving up eccentricity and cultural nuances without deflating the deceptively fragile nature of the story. "Barney's Version" would lack a great deal of life without these specific talents finding compelling shadings to troubled characters.