In Barney’s Version, Paul Giamatti does what he does best: He plays a guy who is deeply flawed, occasionally heroic, perfectly normal and utterly fascinating. Barney Panofsky, a Jewish Canadian producer of bad television — his studio is called Totally Unnecessary Productions — is at once passionate but petty; smart but foolish; generous but jealous; good-hearted but venial. In short, he’s a deftly drawn study in human contradiction, a character just aching for Giamatti (Sideways) to step into his shoes.
Adapted from Mordechai Richler’s novel, the film jumps artfully through Barney’s life, from his younger, bohemian-ish days in Rome in the 1970s (he hangs out with writers and artists but is the only person with a real job) to the harsher realities of his mid-60s in his hometown of Montreal: He’s unhappily divorced; his son will barely speak to him, and a single-minded detective has just published a book declaring that Barney was responsible for his best friend’s murder. In between, Barney engages in the usual sorts of things adults do: gets married (three times), haggles with people at work, makes life miserable (and sometimes wonderful) for his spouses and children and tolerates with unabashed love and humor the antics of his widowed ex-cop father (a wickedly funny Dustin Hoffman), whose crude jokes and roving eye belie his great affection for his son.
In just about any other movie, the mystery of what happened between Barney and his free-spirited pal Boogie (Scott Steadman) out on the dock of Barney’s country house would be the crux of the film. Instead, it’s almost an ingenious afterthought; Barney’s Version, sly as it is, isn’t even close to a whodunit. Director Richard J. Lewis spools out the story with tension, but he wisely focuses more on Barney’s domestic adventures — which are not unconnected to what happens to Boogie — particularly his courtship of third wife Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Barney meets her at his second wedding; from the moment he lays eyes on Miriam, his braying, annoying new wife (Minnie Driver) really has no chance. Neither the script nor the actress does the character any favors, either: Driver’s over-the-top Jewish Canadian Princess performance is so stereotypical it’s downright embarrassing in a film that otherwise treats its imperfect characters with respect even when they’re at their worst.
The truth is, though, that Barney’s Version wholly belongs to Giamatti, who is asked to deliver a performance that encompasses all the profound and mundane emotions of a man’s existence. That he delivers masterfully, hilariously, heartbreakingly, is no surprise. Short, pudgy, balding, Giamatti may be the one actor left who can honestly pull off the whole running-for-a-train-in-order-to-deliver-a-declaration-of-love scene. When he flees his wedding reception into the hysterical streets — the Canadians have just won the Stanley Cup Finals — and follows the shocked Miriam to pour out his heart, he gratefully, “It really happens!” as he realizes he’s in love at first sight. The moment is an improbably romantic one that Barney will eventually screw up. But its memory, like Giamatti’s performance, lingers powerfully.
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver.
Director: Richard J. Lewis.
Writer: Michael Konyves. Based on the novel by Mordechai Richler.
Producer: Robert Lantos.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 132 minutes. Language, some sexual content. Opens Friday Jan. 28 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Palace, Delray.