Timing is everything. Barney’s Version arrives in town less than a week after star Paul Giamatti collected a Golden Globe for Best Actor (in a Musical or Comedy). Since Barney’s Version is nothing if not a character study, Giamatti is the surly, sarcastic selling point. We get the story of a lifetime in Barney’s Version, which introduces Giamatti’s Barney Panofsky as a 65-year-old TV producer in Montreal. His work is schlock, and he carries a regretful weariness with him that, in no small part, owes to the dissolution of his third marriage (as something like a hobby, he phones up and harasses his ex-wife’s husband). The people in his life tolerate him at best, and as he begins to experience his latest unraveling—involving scandal and ill health—the film stretches back into Barney’s past for some answers.
We’re never invited to question Barney’s “version” of the story, framed as his memories. Though this seems a missed opportunity given such an otherwise unreliable character, the story has more than enough on its plate as it is. We get three weddings and at least one funeral, among other events dutifully recounted from Mordechai Richler’s 1997 novel, his last. Richler’s self-lacerating Jewish characters put him in the company of Philip Roth and fellow Canadian Saul Bellow, whose Herzog makes a cameo in the hands of Barney’s true love.
In hindsight, Barney’s good times in 1974 Rome turn out to be absurdly short-lived. He hurtles headlong into an ill-advised marriage to the pregnant, dissembling, unstable Clara (Rachel Lefevre), against the advice of his alcoholic writer buddy Boogie (Scott Speedman). Seeking the safety of convention back home in Montreal, Barney tries being a good boy by marrying a pushy but “suitably” Jewish girl (Minnie Driver), identified only as “the 2nd Mrs. P.” But the bad boy busts out at the wedding, as a disinterested Barney listens to a Stanley Cup game, drinks heavily, spars with his father-in-law and, for an encore, professes his love to beautiful stranger Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
Barney seeks romantic advice from his ex-cop father (Dustin Hoffman), falls under investigation for murder (by Mark Addy’s suspicious detective), marries Miriam, and divorces again, bringing the story back around to miserable old Barney. Since the events are largely foretold, Barney’s Version isn’t so much about the “what” as the “how” and “why,” and the filigrees of character along the way. The most humane of these come from Hoffman’s warm, fearless Izzy, Giamatti’s complicatedly self-destructive Barney, and Pike’s solicitous and sympathetic Miriam (it's nice to see Pike not stuck playing posh).
Your mileage may vary on whether or not Barney’s Version is more or less than the sum of its parts. Even at over two hours, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink plot suffers from the lost luxuries of the page, and director Richard J. Lewis seems more interested in the little things (like cameos for Canadian filmmakers Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, and David Cronenberg) than bringing focus to the big picture. All the same, Giamatti’s ornery anti-hero keeps us guessing as he learns his lessons the hard way.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]