Monday, February 2, 2015

The Tragic Clown - A Love Story -'Barney's Version'

Paul Giamatti as Barney
The 2011 movie 'Barney's Version' is a sublime, tear jerking, love story. A man's romance that you can cry your eyes out over. Paul Giamatti sends his performance right out of the ball park. Every nuance in the heartbreaking life of the tragic clown is fully fleshed out; Giamatti is as shameless as Pavarotti singing Pagliacci, and with good reason; he inhabits Barney from his huge, soulful eyes to his determined, head pitched forward, uncompromising march through life.

Our unlikely romantic hero, Barney, is an educated, cultured, old world guy, with old world values like honesty, loyalty, and love, that trump all else. There are three women in his life, each one a sad, love story of its own. This is a man who, as his first wife accuses him, "you really do wear your heart on your sleeve; now put it away, it's disgusting to look at." And that is what he fears most, that his big, overflowing, loving heart is vulgar and laughable. This is the essence of Barney's tragedy and undoing.

His second wife, played by the delightful Minnie Driver, is a Jewish version of the California Valley Girl, hilariously immature with a master's degree in something or other, but not life. Barney is freed from this marriage when he catches his handsome best friend in bed with his wife. That best friend very soon mysteriously disappears, and Barney is accused of murder due to a jealous rage. We later find out that the friend has been the victim of a bizarre, but entirely innocent, accident, proving that Barney was never guilty of sexual envy.

In his third marriage, Barney finds true love and the woman he can adore. His third wife submits graciously, almost like she loves him, to being the object of his worship.

In all of the most common, conservative traditions, there is a religiously sanctioned, masculine role, and Barney is completely comfortable as the man who loves his wife and family, and does whatever it takes to provide for them, thus giving him permission to enjoy smoking cigars, eating meat, watching hockey games, and strutting like a peacock, guilt free.

Dustin Hoffman plays Barney's salty, earthy father, and he has never been better. He is a tell it like it is, stand by his son Dad, and retired cop, whose simple, masculine virtues may include low grade police brutality of the sort that those who have never faced personal violence may find repellent, but he is no hypocrite. He freely admits the temptation to push people around can be a failing of a young man in a uniform. 

In his third wife Miriam, Barney finds the woman who is the center of his universe, a lovely, but modern woman, who is always cool and in control, lacking the spontaneity, warmth and humanity, which Barney has in abundance. All seems well, until Miriam falls for another man, who works in radio, as she did before her marriage. With the gender free name of Blair, he is a fey, flattering vegan. "Is that treatable?" Barney quips, sensing immediately the threat to his happiness. Miriam justifies her return to a radio career with all the usual empty nest excuses.

Miriam basks in the glow of Blair's admiration, both professionally and as a friend. When she insists on going to New York by herself, and then encounters Blair, Barney is devastated; he has lost her. But as he says later, 'Have I ever given up when it comes to you?' He does the only thing he can think of to preserve their love for all eternity; he buys a joint cemetery plot. Alone and overwhelmed by the aching certainty he is vulgar and unworthy of Miriam, he seeks solace for his battered ego in the arms of another woman. If this were a romantic comedy, he would find some way to expose Blair's regard as a fraud and save Miriam from making a horrible mistake. But, instead, he falls victim to his own tragic sense of being the clown that other people laugh at and don't respect. Miriam divorces him for his infidelity and goes off with Blair.

The fulfillment Miriam craves in her radio performances stands in stark contrast to Barney's attitude toward his very successful business, Totally Unnecessary Productions, which churns out TV soap operas. He has no illusions that his career, or for that matter, any career, is a substitute for being a good man. Miriam is hooked on the flattery of the world, demanding that even Barney serve her vanity by admiring her broadcasts.

This sets up the final, great aria by Giamatti. Miriam is married to Blair, Barney is succumbing to Alzheimer's, and they have a lunch together, where, in her disappointingly callow way, Miriam asks if they cannot at least be friends. Barney who has loved her so deeply, brokenheartedly replies, 'no.' Miriam goes to the ladies room, and when she returns to the table, Barney is gone. Frantically, she searches for him. At last, she finds him alone, reminiscing, in the old ballroom, much like where they first met. His dementia has made him confused as to why she is so upset by his disappearance. She replies, 'I thought I had lost you.' It is here that we see her begin to sense the magnitude of the love and the man she has lost. And hitting the high C, Giamatti, lost in his loving memories, assures her she could never lose him, and blessedly forgetful of the past, suggests since they have dropped the kids off at school, they should take the afternoon off together. If you're not tearing up at this point, I suggest you visit your cardiologist, because you may have a heart problem.

The last scene of Miriam, alone at the grave, which Barney bought so they could be together forever, is a tear stained, glorious triumph of enduring love. Now, at last, when he is gone, she understands; he will never give up on her; a love like Barney's can never be defeated, even by death. What a grand finale, what a love story! Get out the Kleenex.

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