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Unknown, Barney's Version 

UNKNOWN

***

I don't mind that Unknown, which builds on Liam Neeson's newly minted status as a tortured action hero, is utterly ridiculous. Why? Because within the constraints of its absurdity, it always manages to play fair with the audience.

This is a radical departure from many contemporary thrillers in which the filmmakers are so focused on the twist ending that they barrel toward that destination with little rhyme or reason. The result is invariably a storyline riddled with plotholes and saddled with, let's face it, a twist that was pretty easy to spot in the first place.

But Unknown isn't like that. It starts with Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arriving in Berlin to attend a conference. A subsequent accident while riding in a taxi cab leaves him with a moderate case of amnesia, able to recall his identity but not the details surrounding the accident -- and utterly unable to explain why his wife insists that another man (Aidan Quinn) is the real Martin Harris.

Alone in a foreign land, Martin tries to piece the mystery together with the help of the cab driver (Diane Kruger), whose illegal-immigrant status makes her reluctant to get involved, and an elderly private detective (German national treasure Bruno Ganz), who's hoping to recapture a smidgen of the excitement he enjoyed during his time as a member of the Stasi.

Neeson is as compelling here as he was in his previous Euro-action yarn Taken, and the picture even makes some modest political jabs by presenting Kruger's illegal immigrant as a heroine who's smart, resourceful and tough, an asset to the population of any country. Mostly, though, the film keeps its focus on its central mystery, and when everything is finally explained, we can quietly smile at its outlandishness while simultaneously applauding it for not insulting our intelligence.

BARNEY'S VERSION

***

Paul Giamatti's excellent performance in Barney's Version recently earned him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and he certainly deserved the honor over his embarrassingly weak competition. What isn't so clear, however, is why this film was thrust into the Comedy category in the first place.

Certainly, this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel has its share of gentle laughs, many of them provided by Dustin Hoffman in an ingratiating turn as the father of Giamatti's Barney Panofsky. But ultimately, this decades-spanning look at the life of an irascible and often unpleasant man is more about heartbreak than humor, touching upon such subjects as Alzheimer's, infidelity and even murder.

Moving back and forth in time, the film allows us glimpses into what helped turn Barney into a far-from-upstanding individual, even if it doesn't always excuse his behavior (for what it's worth, he's surrounded by equally annoying and/or unscrupulous individuals, played by, among others, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and the Twilight series' original Victoria, Rachelle Lefevre).

Barney Panofsky is a rich character inhabited by an actor up to the formidable task, although it's worth noting that the Globe win didn't lead to an Oscar nod; instead, its sole nomination is for Best Makeup. It deserves to win over Rick Baker's been-there-done-that work on The Wolfman; frankly, Benicio Del Toro's hirsute countenance is no match for Giamatti's liver spots.

 

 

 

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