Every once in a while, a movie comes along that showcases a complex,
aggravating, endearing, unforgettable main character.
Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is one of those guys who has just
enough talent to be a success, just enough raw self-indulgence to struggle
with cigar-smoking and whiskey addiction, just enough unrestrained lust to
make enormous mistakes in choosing spouses, just enough valuable family
connection to sustain him through the rough patches, and just enough caustic
humor to stagger through it all with sense of irony intact.
As he approaches the end of his working days (early Baby Boomers will
immediately identify here), he finds himself looking back with lots of
clarity, a little nostalgia, and only a few sharp regrets.
He was working on this movie set in
, they were all young and robust and having a great time with the parties
and the nightlife. He stumbled
into a marriage with Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) because she’s crazy funny
but begins to discover her deceits even on his wedding day (her legal name
was different from what she had told him, which involves an important piece
of her personal history that she neglected to mention).
The thing sort of implodes quickly of its own flimsiness, but Barney
recovers pretty well. He’s
now working steadily back in
on a cheesy soap opera which isn’t exactly great artistry, but hey, it
pays the bills. His Dad (Dustin
Hoffman, in an excellent secondary performance) continues to love him
unconditionally, though he can be an awkward social embarrassment at times.
Barney is introduced to a nice Jewish girl (Minnie Driver) whose
family is arrogant and overbearing, and again, on his wedding day, Barney
hears some warning bells, and this time he decides to pay attention to them.
Except that he is ridiculously compulsive, in pointedly watching a
hockey game on television during his wedding reception, schmoozing with the
bartender instead of his wife’s boorish friends, when suddenly he just
happens to meet “The One, “ Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
She, being a woman of good sense, tells him he is being completely
ridiculous to flirt with her on his wedding day, even pursuing her to the
train station, leaving all the guests behind, with the bridal party
frantically searching everywhere for him.
Barney, convinced that he has found his true love at last, will not
quit sending her flowers, even as he half-heartedly attempts to make it work
with the shrew he has married. He
still feels something for her---perhaps more irritation than anything----but
the transforming moment is when he discovers her in “flagrante delicto”
with his best friend. This
gives him a wonderful excuse to throw her out and claim it was her fault,
which gets him part of her family’s money to start his own production
company, but it was a shame about losing his best friend.
Now he’s finally free to pursue Miriam, who wouldn’t give him the
time of day while he was still married, but now, understandably, is
flattered that he continues his shameless romancing of her.
He is flabbergasted when she appears to reciprocate his unguarded
caring for her. And now,
finally, Barney finds his groove. They
have children, a boy and a girl, they have a nice, happy, home life---but
well, he’s still Barney. He
still drinks too much, though he means well, and he’s still impulsive and
irascible and never could suffer fools gladly, but somehow we like him,
anyway, because he’s witty, passionate, perceptive, and always true to
But then, also true to himself, he screws up royally.
He fouls his own nest, by allowing himself a one-night stand with an
old acquaintance who didn’t even mean that much to him, but he cannot hide
his wrenching guilt, and now he has shattered the only woman he ever truly
loved, and messed up his long-term relationships to his now-grown children,
as well. And now, as he looks
back at his impulsive excesses, he is so filled with remorse that he is in
denial of the reality that his beloved Miriam has moved on.
And when he begins to descend into dementia, he lives in some part of
his past with her that’s so much more pleasant to him than his current
Paul Giamatti is wondrous in this role.
No wonder he won the Golden Globe for this performance.
It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though there are periods of
both—it’s more of a clear-eyed retrospective. But it’s a marvelous
character study, and a
compelling treatment of a life genuinely lived.
Dr. Ronald P Salfen, Co-Pastor, United