Barney’s Version: The Big Fairytale of a Small Life

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Watched Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version as a breather between inhaling case studies. It turns out to be far more thought-provoking than I have time to fully immerse in now, but I did manage to dig up Roger Ebert’s review. This line, I think, perfectly explains why Barney’s story needed to be told:

Giamatti’s Barney is not especially smart or talented or good-looking, but he is especially there — a presence with a great depth of need that apparently appeals to the lovely Miriam. She’s one of those women who seems unaware that everyone must constantly be asking, ‘What does she see in him?’ That women persist in seeing things in us, as men we must be grateful.

There are stories about grand lives and epic dreams coming to fruition. Cities and empires imagined from humble blood and sweat. Hollywood is built on castles in the sky. Such tales appeal to our quarter-life limbo between jaw-slacking naivete and pedantic cynicism. But then there are the real fairytales, such as Barney’s Version, which is so much about living small in a big way, about being present in your own life even if no one else notices. About the largeness of your own romance, a largeness felt from within and treated as fact that others cannot negate.

Barney isn’t oblivious to what others think, but he finds their opinion irrelevant. This, I submit, is the most incredible aspect of his personhood – that he feels and fears and wrings his hands as much as the next Schmoe, but unlike them, he lives far beyond the smallness of a nervous life. He knows the secret that all great men know – that you can’t afford not to be reckless. Life is so, so damn short.

Barney is self-involved, unapologetic. Infectious. His is not a life lived in proportion, but one lived with conviction. It’s hard to imagine, in our modern-day parade of options and ambition, how Barney could spot a woman from across the room (at his wedding to someone else, no less) and let her become his life’s greatest ambition, mystery and religion. And she remains his greatest ambition, mystery and religion thirty years, two children and an entire marriage later. His capacity to keep chasing a woman who others would say he already has is…unspeakably moving. He never stops believing that she cannot fully be had. She still inspires his imagined jealousies. After thirty years, that is one heck of a fairytale. And it’s a dangerous fairytale – one for which Barney pays a great, and real, price. But living and loving this way makes his very existence vital and grand – not in relation to anything else, but in and of itself. That kind of grandness is its own brand of fantasy, and one I want to believe in for all of my life.

“That women persist in seeing things in us,” Ebert says, “as men we must be grateful.” I think that anyone persisting to see anything in us, as humans we must be thankful. That anyone else can look into us and think, “Maybe.” That we can spark their imagination. What gave humans the capacity to see possibility in one another? I don’t know, but it’s a terrific invention. And I’m glad for it.

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