Opening this weekend in the Valley:
Barney’s Version—The title suggests a response or rebuttal, & that is indeed the form that Mordecai Richler’s acclaimed final novel takes. The title character, neurotic Canadian Jewish TV producer Barney Panofsky, replies to an expose about him.
The new movie version, with Paul Giamatti as Barney, makes little more than a nod to this conceit. But it still gives us, in flashback, an expansive view of Barney’s adult life—how he bungles three marriages in a row, & what he has to do with the disappearance of his best friend, a priapic novelist. Directed by Richard J. Lewis from a script by Michael Konyves, this is one of those ambling, leisurely movies that gives the feel of reading a good novel, & if I had seen it before the end of last year it would have certainly been on my Top Ten list for 2010. The role of Barney gives Giamatti a perfect opportunity for his specialties—wearing a shattered heart on his face, & using his strangled voice to modulate his fury from comic to harrowing & back.
He’s superb, but so is everyone else in the large cast, including Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s anxious, eager-to-please father, Rachel LeFevre as the hopeless first wife, Minnie Driver, hilarious as the second Mrs. P, a Jewish Canadian Princess of really impressive shallowness, & Rosamund Pike as the goddessy love of Barney’s life, with whom he is thunderstruck at first sight at, alas, his own wedding reception. Scott Speedman plays the novelist friend, & there are also fine turns by Mark Addy, Bruce Greenwood, Saul Rubinek & Harvey Atkin, among others.
One other note: Barney’s Version didn’t get anything like the Oscar recognition it deserved, but the one nomination it did recieve pleased me: Best Makeup (who would have imagined this movie would share a category with The Wolfman?). Adrien Morot’s age makeup on Giamatti & the other actors is so convincing & so subtle that it unobtrusively adds to the sense that we’re seeing decades of these peoples’ lives. It’s understandable that fantastic, otherwordly makeup effects would dominate that category, but I’m always delighted by the acknowledgement of technique that hasn’t called attention to itself.
The Rite—A young mortician-turned-seminarian, struggling with his faith, is sent to Rome to take a course in exorcism. While there, he becomes the protégé of a Welsh Jesuit, assisting him in the exorcism of a teenage girl. Not only does this effort end disastrously, the old veteran ends up possessed himself, & it’s up to the newbie to evict the demonic squatter.
The young guy is played by Colin O’Donoghue, a thin Irish actor with a long, melancholy face. He looks great, but he comes across here as neither a bad actor nor a very interesting one. The true star, though he has far less screen time, is Anthony Hopkins, who as the old Jesuit lends his warmth & his abrupt, absentminded cadences to this slow, dull horror movie. It’s certainly true that once the padre is possessed, Hopkins simply re-uses his Hannibal Lecter tricks, but for me even that had entertainment value.
Not enough, though. The film, reportedly loosely based on true events, is too somber & sluggish to work as camp, & way too silly to be taken seriously. The usual theological perplexities toward this archaic ritual arise in the mind of a logical viewer—the movie asserts, for instance, that devils prefer to remain incognito in the human world, which makes one wonder why they can’t resist telling the exorcists things that the possessed person shouldn’t be able to know. Are they just showoffs?
There is one sterling gag in The Rite. Normally I wouldn’t give it away, but since I’m not recommending the movie, I will (stop reading now if you still stubbornly plan to go): In the middle of an exorcism, the old priest’s cell phone rings, &…you guessed it, he takes the call, & says he’s in the middle of something.