Monday, January 10, 2011

Day 155: Barry Lyndon

Year: 1975
Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #232
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O'Neal and Marisa Berenson

I've never articulated it in this blog before, mainly because I just realized in the past couple of weeks, but no one is better at adapting novels for the screen than Stanley Kubrick. All of his greatest works – The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey – take books with high barriers to entry, whether because of length, difficulty, or general obtuseness, and make them easily accessible to the public in a manner that maintains the spirit of the source material but makes something entirely new, stamped with his directorial identity. While Barry Lyndon might lose a point or two in the accessibility category with its three-hour length, it's certainly an inherently watchable film based on a somewhat impenetrable book by William Makepeace Thackeray. To call the movie "episodic" or "picaresque" is about as accurate as you can possibly get, but still doesn't quite seem to cover it. I tweeted while watching the film that I'm not sure if two works can be relatively picaresque when compared to one another, but if they can, that Barry Lyndon is the most picaresque movie ever made. Our protagonist gets into so many disparate antics on his way to the upper class, and so many more once he's there, that his adventure starts to make Don Quixote look like The Old Man and the Sea. Alright, that's enough literary references. I don't want to make this blog post read like an English class, even if the film it's about kind of feels like one.

I remember when I was first really getting into Stanley Kubrick back in junior high school I was too daunted by Barry Lyndon's length and plot summary to give it a chance, and that was probably the right call. As much as I appreciated its deliberate pace, incredibly dry humor, and top-notch costuming at age 20, I highly doubt the 13-year-old who was enamored by The Shining would have felt the same. My now relatively extensive experience reading picaresque novels also made its incredibly episodic plot a lot easier for me to stomach, too, and I was able to appreciate the movie for what it was. Sure, I would never put Lyndon on the same level as some of Kubrick's masterpieces, but it was still a masterful adaptation that made a borderline unreadable tome incredibly watchable.

Of course, not all of that credit should go to Kubrick. Ryan O'Neal shines in the title role, with equal parts Ryan Reynolds swagger (yes, I said it) and Tom Hulce irreverence (Tom Hulce in Amadeus in particular; I haven't actually seen any of his other films that I know of.) Ultimately, Barry Lyndon is a biopic of its eponymous character, and without a brilliant leading man it would fall flat. Fortunately, O'Neal delivers. No criticisms leveled at the film should be about him. I'm not prepared to call Barry Lyndon an all-time classic, but it is one of the best examples I've ever seen in its genre, and it's yet another successful adaptation by its master director. I wouldn't watch it if I was tired, but I would probably watch it again.

The Good: Ryan O'Neal's performance.

The Bad: This is one of those movies where I can't point to one flaw in particular but I still wouldn't call it one of my favorites. If you're an enormous fan of picaresque costume dramas, this might be the best movie of all time.

The Skinny: I can deal with #232.


  1. Absolutely love this movie!!! But it's a favorite that I wouldn't put near the top of the list.
    If I had to pick my 250 favorite movies this one would probably end up somewhere around #228ish???
    I'm content with that place as well.
    I do wish it would get a more justified dvd release. I think criterion should pick it up but it's whatever. The movie is enjoyable as it is!!!

  2. I kind of love the Stanley Kubrick Collection with those weird black plastic openers on the right sides. I dunno, because they look uniform on a shelf I guess.