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Shakespeare for kids, Company business, and a tour de force for Paul Giamatti

by Mark Burger

Disney’s Gnomeo & Juliet is an animated and somewhat heavily revised adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with the principal characters embodied by lawn gnomes and other yard ornaments, including the titular Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt).

Romance blooms among the flowers of adjoining and rival backyards in suburban London, and that‘s not including the hairraising high falls, lawnmower chases and traffic hazards. Maybe it’s not how William Shakespeare intended it, but by keeping it light and airy, this offers a pleasant diversion for all ages. It’s no cartoon classic, nor is it really meant to be.

The classic’s in the original story; Gnomeo & Juliet has fun with it while not being a cheap insult.

Grownups with a bent for the Bard will enjoy the many in-jokes and “adjustments” to the original story — and it’s hardly giving anything away to reveal that this version ends not with suicide but with “matrignomey” and a cheerful, high-kicking curtain call. As for the kids, they’ll enjoy the slapstick gags and breezy, unforced energy of the proceedings, all of it attuned, so to speak, to the songs of Elton John (the film’s executive producer).

A star-studded voiceover cast also includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Dolly Parton, Julie Walters, Ozzy Osbourne, director Kelly Asbury and Patrick Stewart (as Shakespeare himself — or at least his statue). Yes, if you’ve ever wanted to see a movie with both Maggie Smith and Ozzy Osbourne, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.

The Company Men offers a well-intentioned, sometimes sharply observant portrayal of what happens when the American Dream goes wrong, when the corporate collapse strikes the individual, rather than the collective.

Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones are the principal trio for whom the bottom falls out, their affluence and self-confidence evaporating in an environment that continues to collapse even as they seek new employment.

The film occasionally lays its message on a bit thick, especially with regard to Affleck’s character, but he plays his role in sympathetic enough fashion, while Jones and Cooper are absolutely superb in their roles, as old-school executives whose ethics, while occasionally tarnished, remain intact — yet somehow invalid and outdated in this economic climate.

Writer/director John Wells, best known for his small-screen triumphs (“ER” and “The West Wing” among his hits), makes his feature debut here, ably assisted by a high-profile cast that also includes Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson, Eamonn Walker and Kevin Costner, comfortably essaying a character role as Affleck’s down-to-earth, blue-collar brotherin-law.

Adapted from Mordecai Richler’s final novel (and dedicated to his memory), Barney’s Version offers a superb showcase for Paul Giamatti, cast in the title role of Barney Panofsky, a successful TV writer/producer looking back over his life.

Barney is the sort of self-absorbed, cranky, severely neurotic malcontent that Giamatti plays so well. In other hands, Barney might well be an insufferable boor. But Giamatti (who took home the Golden Globe Award as best actor in a comedy or musical) makes him sympathetic, very human and even lovable, faults and all.

Barney’s life veers from the comic to the tragic, much of it his own doing (and undoing). He’s had three wives, been implicated in a friend’s unsolved disappearance and earned a fortune overseeing a long-running (and clearly long-suffering) television soap opera. He’s also starting to lose his memory, and those that tend to linger in his mind the clearest are his regrets. And he’s had a few.

Director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves, both veterans of the small screen, try to condense Richler’s novel without diluting its offbeat, sometimes outrageous, dark humor and its genuine dramatic resonance. Barney’s Version is a long and unwieldy film, but with Giamatti at full strength, it stays on track throughout.

This is the actor’s show all the way, but there’s room for the supporting cast to make its mark: Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike (especially good) play Wife No. 2 and Wife No. 3, the latter of whom he falls for during his wedding reception to No. 2. Scott Speedman, Mark Addy, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Harvey Atkin, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Hoffman and the late Maury Chaykin are also on hand, and there’s a delightful turn by Dustin Hoffman (Jake’s real-life dad) as Harvey’s father, from whom he undoubtedly inherited his propensity for, and appreciation of, the absurd.

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