‘Barney’s Version” is a film a decade in the making. The unusually long development and production schedule wasn’t the result of the filmmaker fine-tuning digital-effects shots or the studio slowly unfurling some bloated marketing campaign, as is often the case. Rather, it was a matter of producer Robert Lantos ensuring that everything about “Barney’s Version,” based on the 1997 tragicomic novel by Canadian literary luminary Mordecai Richler, who passed away in 2001, aged 70, was just right. After all, the film had to capture the spirit not only of Richler’s beloved novel, but also of the author himself.
“Mordecai Richler left me with a magnificent book, which was extraordinarily difficult to translate into the cinematic language,” Lantos explained. “Mordecai was going to write the screenplay himself, but never got to finish it.” The scope of Richler’s novel can be fittingly described as “epic,” diagramming the adult life of its eponym, Montreal TV producer and bon vivant Barney Panofsky (played with pitch-perfect grumpiness by Paul Giamatti), as he treks across Rome, slumps back and forth between Montreal and New York, and manages the complications of three marriages. As if that weren’t enough, he also finds himself embroiled in the murder of his best friend.
All eminently literary escapades, to be sure, but cutting them into a two-hour film posed a number of complex issues. “We had to find ways to condense it without losing any of its integrity, any of its essence,” Lantos said. “Writers came and went and were not really able to accomplish that which I was looking for.” The best solution proved the simplest: finding a writer who would let Richler’s characters and the strength of his prose speak for themselves. The same rule applied to bringing on director Richard J. Lewis, best known for his work helming episodes of “CSI” and for the 1994 Canadian film “Whale Music,” itself adapted from an award-winning novel by Paul Quarrington.
“Richard shared my point of view on how to make this movie,” Lantos said. “There are directors of higher pedigree who we talked to very early in the process: renowned directors who told me they had read the book. I found time after time that who I was talking to, whether or not I respected their work, did not really share my point of view and wanted to use Richler’s book as a point of departure. I didn’t want to do that.” Indeed, Lantos has held court with countless high-profile directors. “Barney’s Version” even sees him calling in cameos from top-shelf Canadian directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan (playing beleaguered TV directors), as well as from two-time Academy Award winning Quebecois auteur Denys Arcand, playing a waiter at Barney’s favorite Montreal restaurant.
But Lewis’s more unobtrusive direction foregrounds story over style, realizing Lantos’s guiding belief that the film’s real author was always meant to be Richler. In this regard, “Barney’s Version” is an unequivocal success. Lewis and Lantos have tactfully compacted the sprawl of the novel into a brisk 132 minutes. Like the 1974 film adaptation of Richler’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” a film that massively expanded the profiles of both its star, Richard Drefyuss, and the English-language Canadian film industry, “Barney’s Version” remains true to the spark and wit of Richler’s prose.
Casting the film’s title role proved as knotty as nailing down the approach to the material. Lantos needed an actor who could play Panofsky with equal parts rough-edged charm and weathered world-weariness. In other words, he needed the archetypal Richler hero. “The conversations I remember having with Mordecai while he was with us about who could play Barney lamented the fact that the obviously perfect Barneys, like Dustin Hoffman, were too old,” he said. “But then I saw the 2004 film “Sideways,” and that was the first time that I knew there was an actor who could definitely play Barney.”
Though Hoffman may be a little long in the tooth to play the lead, he does appear in a scene-stealing role as Barney’s father, Izzy, a character whose blunt manner and tendency to thumb his nose at the milquetoast Montreal Jewry make him the film’s most obvious embodiment of Richler’s enduring spirit. In one scene, Izzy butts heads with Barney’s upper-crust would-be in- laws in a debate over whether anti-Semitism in Montreal is a real or imagined prejudice. Izzy, who in his day-to-day life as a blue-collar beat cop confronts flippant anti-Semitic comments regularly, puts it rather frankly, saying, “I call it as I see it.”
“That might as well be Mordecai,” Lantos said. “He was kind of the black sheep of the Montreal Jewish community for his entire youth.” Richler’s status as something of a firebrand with a proclivity for plain speaking may have resulted in his playing the part of lightning rod during his career, but it also has strengthened his repute posthumously. This is especially true in Canada, where Richler remains one of the cornerstones of the national literary and cultural canon. A film adaption of a Richler novel may prove a harder sell south of the border, but bolstered by the star power of Giamatti and Hoffman (whose performances are already generating whispers of Academy Award recognition come Oscar season), as well as by Lantos’s tireless screenings of the film at festivals across the globe, “Barney’s Version” is bound to find an audience.
“Alas, Mordecai doesn’t have the kind of following [in the United States] that he has in Canada,” Lantos said. “The film has to speak for itself. But I believe it does. I’ve seen it at dozens and dozens and dozens of screenings all over the world, and people seem to have the same reaction: They laugh, they’re moved.”
John Semley is a freelance writer in Toronto and a frequent contributor to the Forward’s The Arty Semite blog.