MOVIE REVIEW The Barbarian Invasions: It’s not about barbarians

Although the Oscars proved themselves to be an unreliable way of measuring film quality once again this year, they’re usually pretty good when it comes to a few of the smaller awards. This is especially true when, in the foreign language or documentary categories, the Oscars actually agree with some other non-Hollywood awards programs like Sundance or Cannes. It looked like a good sign, then, when The Barbarian Invasions was named the Best Foreign Film after a successful run at Cannes and a long list of rave critical reviews. But like so many other Oscar winners of past and present, The Barbarian Invasions is highly overrated.

Basically, The Barbarian Invasions is a good film, but not the great one it could have been. It lines up all the right parts of a great movie, but fails to execute these scenes in many places. The ending is great, and there are some really charming scenes and conversations, but the bad scenes are frustrating and they ruin the pace of the film.

The Barbarian Invasions centers around a middle-aged man who is slowly dying in a Canadian hospital. In his final days, he calls together his friends and family, some of whom he hasn’t seen in years, to look back on his life.

The plot sets up a forum for discussing various philosophies on death, sex, history, politics, drugs, and various other hot issues. Lots of filmmakers find ways to do this in their movies, two recent notables being Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and Bob Odenkirk’s brilliant Melvin Goes to Dinner. In one, dreamlike characters discuss and experience philosophical ideas in their daily lives. In the other, a handful of Los Angeles socialites meet for dinner and end up debating love, sex, and life for hours.

Both of these films are better than The Barbarian Invasions, although neither is as hyped. The Barbarian Invasions debuted at Cannes in 2003, winning two awards there for screenwriting and acting. It had a modest run in art-house theaters in the U.S. until the Academy Awards win, which will probably result in a slightly wider release, although this is not a film with much commercial appeal.

If you’re looking for good philosophical drama and thought-provoking conversations, rent the above films instead. You’ll enjoy The Barbarian Invasions from an emotional standpoint, especially with its touching ending. But the movie is not as smart as it wants to be, and its attempts at humor are usually corny enough to warrant eye rolling.

Some characters are annoyingly one-dimensional, like most of the random friends that show up at the hospital. His son, a wealthy commodities trader, is the most interesting part of the film, and sets up a few funny-yet-sad moments when he tries to buy his way out of every problem. If all the characters were as developed and well-written as the son, The Barbarian Invasions might reach the heights it desires. But as of now, this is just another solid foreign film. Fans of the self-pretentious style employed in French filmmaking will probably enjoy The Barbarian Invasions, as many have, but normal moviegoers and most Americans are probably not going to get into this film.

Shawn Wines can be reached at