said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remem- ber all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.
There are no fringes on Barney Panofsky’s garments, even though he is Jewish and in the midst of a Jew ish wedding. And even if he did wear them with a blue cord at each corner, I don’t think they would have worked to call to remembrance “all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.” If he ever studied the commandments prior to his Bar Mitzvah, he’s long forgotten them, as has his father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a retired Montreal policeman.
The wedding service to the woman billed only as “The 2nd Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver) is barely over, with Barney at the wedding feast already falling out of love with his strident wife and attracted to a guest whom he spots across “a crowded room,” as the old song goes. Hastening to her, he discovers that she is Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a woman as intelligent as she is beautiful and witty. She thinks his proffering of love is crazy, and when he leaves the reception and follows her to the train station from whence she is to return to New York, she is sure of it.
The above sequence takes place well into the film. It actually begins in a Montreal bar years later. A retired detective slaps a book down in front of Barney, telling him that now the world will know “the truth” about his supposedly having murdered his best friend many years ago. Barney then sets out to write his memoir to give his version. In the sarcasm so typical of him Barney calls his work, “The true story of my wasted life.” Through a series of flashbacks we are taken to Rome when Barney was living a Bohemian life with Boogie (Scott Speedman) and fell in love and married the vivacious, and pregnant Clara (Rachelle Lefevre). The heroin addicted Boogie warns Barney, “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife.” This marriage lasts only as long as the pregnancy, with the dark color of the new baby revealing that a mutual friend, not Barney, was the father.
Barney takes longer to rid himself of his second spouse, who is pictured so Philistine that we are led to cheer him on in his attempts. In the meantime Boogie is killed up at their lakeside cabin, the circumstances unclear as to Barney’s guilt. His friend’s body is never found, so the detective investigating the case remains suspicious. Meanwhile Barney, learning more about Miriam, tries to communicate with her by telephone. She rebuffs him, but he sends her flowers every week any way. Eventually Barney ditches spouse No. 2, marries Miriam, has two children by her—but retains his old self-centered, lecherous nature, never supporting her when she returns to her broadcast career after the children leave home for college.
Actor Paul Giamatti so skillfully portrays the louse of a character that we almost sympathize with him. However, an anti-hero has to display some redeeming qualities to win our hearts (as with Paul Newman’s drifter Lukas Jackson in that ultimate anti-hero film Cool Hand Luke). Barney harbors no ambition to improve his career at his uncle’s television studio, aptly named “Unnecessary Productions” where he directs a crummy soap opera centering on the adventures of a Mounty. Barney sarcastically puts it and its mediocre actors down but never tries to improve the show or move beyond it to produce something worthwhile. He reminded me of the movie producer played by Steve Martin in Grand Canyon, who became rich through his series of violent exploitation films—though at least Martin’s character had a brief period in which an epiphany, while he was recovering in a hospital from a gunshot wound, led him to vow to produce more worthy films that would uplift people. (Barney-like, his conversion did not last very long.)
Director, Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves’ adaptation of the novel by Mordecai Richler is engaging, but hardly instructive or uplifting. Except for the fine acting (Giamatti won a Golden Globe, and Dustin Hoffman as his father is also excellent, and Rosamund Pike is radiant as Miriam), this story depicts characters using drugs and sex as if there were no commandments at the center of their faith. At least it does show that there are some consequences from misdeeds, so maybe after all one can see this as a flawed morality tale.
1. What do you think of Barney? Is the review too hard on him? How are he and his father alike? Did you ever wonder what the three women saw in him?
2. At what points does Barney show that he is aware of the hollowness of his life, especially of his work? Do you think she should have forgiven Barney’s betrayal, or that she was right in her decision to move on? (For instance, was Barney ever supportive of her work or of her friends?)
3. How is Miriam different from the first two wives? Why does she not accept his professions of love at first? How does this show that she at least seeks to follow the commandments of her faith?
4. What do you think of the way in which Barney’s father died? Do you agree with Barney’s view of it being a fitting way to go out?
5. What do you think of the way in which Barney ends his days? Sad, or pathetic? Maybe appropriate? I was impressed with the film Remember Me in which the main character was concerned with the significance of his life: do you see Barney’s life as having any significance? If you were to compare his version of his life with that of the detective’s, where do you think the truth would be found?
6. How does Barney hit the mark with his observation, “The true story of my wasted life” ? Compare with him Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.