Feminists in Focus:"Barney's Version" and the Men We Know

“Barney’s Version,” the screen adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel, is as much an archeological artifact as it is a film.

This is what it was like for us, Jewish women who grew came of age early in the second half of the last century.

We knew men like Barney (Paul Giamatti) and his irascible, incorrigible father (Dustin Hoffman).

We dated them.  We married them. And, like two of Barney’s wives, we divorced them.

But it’s not just the character of Barney or the Jewish men in the movie that revive the era for us.

It’s the way Jewish women are portrayed and stereotyped. 

Barney Panofsky, as played by Paul Giamatti, is, as one critic put it, “the soul of a poet trapped in the body of a clown,” with his slouched posture, pot belly and rumpled appearance.

In other words, a schlub with a romantic streak (and the forerunner of characters played by Seth Rogen and others.)

We’re set up by the narrative and the dialogue, as in Richler’s novel, to be drawn to Barney in spite of ourselves and we’re not always pleased about the attraction.  It’s a clear case of being manipulated to side with the rebel and disdain the status quo.

We know for certain who Barney is from the moment the movie opens, with its close-up of a bottle of scotch and a cigar smoldering in an ashtray. The 65-year old Montreal television producer is reflecting, with flashbacks, on the regrets, losses and fleeting triumphs of his life.

What motivates and comforts him throughout his life, in addition to the booze and cigars, are hockey and women. What saves him is love – for his father, his buddies, his children and, especially, for his third wife, serene Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) with the cool, aristocratic manner.

“Classy” is how Miriam is described to Barney when he asks about her, a guest from New York, at his second wedding.

He leaves his wedding and his unclassy bride to chase after Miriam, literally, running through the rain to the train station, to declare his love at first sight.

Is Miriam the shiksa of his dreams?

Well, yes. Miriam was based on his Richler’s second, non-Jewish wife Florence, even though the author was coy about this in the book, giving her the last name of Greenberg . “Everything about this character except that name he gave her — Greenberg — was Florence,” according to the film’s Jewish producer, Robert Lantos.  “Right from the way they meet — because Mordecai and Florence met at his (first) wedding.”

The wedding and scenes of his brief marriage to the wealthy Jewish woman (Minnie Driver)  — until divorce frees him to woo and win the newfound love of his life – are the nadir of the movie.

The wedding scene mines every awful cliché about Jewish weddings, including the zaftig woman at the lavish dessert table.

Decades after Lilith Magazine exposed the toxic combination of misogynism and anti-Semitism that powers the Jewish princess stereotype, Barney’s bride is the epitome of it — and worse, channeling Mike Meyers’ “Saturday Night Live” parody of Barbra Streisand.

She’s not even given a name. The credits label Minnie Driver’s character only as “the second Mrs. P.”

As the wedding scene ends, there’s a horrific close-up of her mouth screaming shrilly, “We’re married!”

Ugh! we’re supposed to think. Poor Barney!

Soon after she’s telling Barney to ditch his beloved cigar – his manhood — in his own home. “Put that out because a lot of my relatives have asthma.”

(The lovely Miriam says, regarding the iconic cigar, “Oh please, go ahead, it’s a Montecristo” – and then proceeds to enlighten and delight Barney with the history of Montecristos and how they got their name. Miriam also appreciates the importance of hockey. And when Barney vomits on their first date, she coolly cleans it up.)

Meanwhile, everything about “the second Mrs. P.” is exaggerated to be unlovely and obnoxious, from the beehive hairdo (Miriam has long, smooth silky hair) to her boasting about her master’s degree.

An example of the second Mrs. P’s dialogue: “I was so ferklempt the doctor gave me a half a Valium and I took the whole thing.”

On her honeymoon in the ritzy hotel, she calls her mother from the room and exclaims loudly, “Ma, you should see the bathroom here!”

And as a prelude to honeymoon oral sex, she fixes a beady eye on her new husband and demands, “Did you wash it like I asked? With soap?”

Indeed, Los Angeles Times critic Betsey Sharkey describes her as “a well-heeled Jewish princess who has more mouth than Barney can stand.”

(Miriam, on the other hand, is described by Sharkey as “beauty, sophistication and smarts, all in one package.”)

Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey writes, “Driver’s shrill caricature of a spoiled Jewish wife is painful.”

And on her blog, The Hollywood Jew, Danielle Berrin describes the second Mrs. P as “the quintessential Jewish American Princess; shallow, screechy and snooty. The presence of her rich and powerful father permits her to emasculate most other men, even as she incessantly rags on them… She whines and commands and complains like it’s her job (of course, she has no job).”

Whereas Miriam is described by Berrin as “a modern incarnation of Grace Kelly.”

To the extent that “Barney’s Version” is recreating the sensibility of a time and place, and being faithful to Richler’s book, the Minnie Driver character is probably not all that outrageous.  Some, if not many Jewish men of the era (including Richler who was not regarded fondly by the Jewish community during his lifetime because of the way he wrote about Jews, men and women) did view rich Jewish women as spoiled, with too much mouth, too little sophistication and the wrong kind of beauty. They lusted after the cool, smooth, distant shiksa – or a reasonable facsimile.

So while the portrayal of the second Mrs. P may be exaggerated and stereotypical, it also may be an accurate representation of how, at the time, men like Barney regarded a “well-heeled,” assertive young Jewish woman. It’s that distorted view, a caricature, which is depicted.

And never mind the details about the unfortunate first wife. It’d be giving away a narrative secret to write too much about her but suffice to say that some of what applies to the second Mrs. P also applies to the first, with a twist.

“Barney’s Version” is a movie you’ll want to see, even if you roll your eyes at the stereotypes and find that watching some scenes is, well, painful.

Other scenes, however, and here I’m talking about the interaction between Paul Giametti and Dustin Hoffman, are glorious, like watching a Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire pas de deux.

And Canadians and fans of Canadian films will get an extra little kick from the cameos of such Canadian film directors as Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, as well as an appearance by producer Lantos, whose company is lampooned by the name of Barney’s fictional production company, Totally Unnecessary Productions.

-Judy Gerstel