When we first meet him, Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is a bitter old man drunk-dialing the husband of one of his ex-wives. A producer of a schlocky Canadian soap opera, Barney is a smart man who has made self-deprecating peace with the nature of his professional success; when one woman he meets wonders if his company is really called "Totally Unnecessary Productions," Barney's shrugging response is, "It is and they are." But having suffered three failed marriages and bothered by the mysterious disappearance of a lifelong friend, Barney's found less peace in his personal life.
Barney's Version, adapted by director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves from Canadian author Mordecai Richler's well-regarded 1997 novel, tells this man's life story, from his young adulthood as a bohemian expatriate in Italy in the early '70s to that opening moment some 40 years later, and even past his death.
At the earliest point, Barney is palling around Italy with aspiring writer Boogie (Scott Speedman) and aspiring artist Leo (Thomas Trabacchi), but he's already showing a penchant for more practical matters, starting an olive-oil export business and marrying a difficult free spirit (Rachelle Lefevre) whom he seems to have knocked up.
That first marriage ends badly, and Barney finds himself back home in Montreal, taking a "suitably" Jewish second wife (Minnie Driver). Yet, at his wedding reception, Barney becomes smitten with another woman, Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike), a New York radio producer there as the date of a closeted cousin of the bride.
Unhappily married, again, Barney puts his energies into pursuing Miriam, a practical woman who firmly resists him until finally — a tragedy, a divorce, and many Canada-to-New-York phone calls and flower deliveries later — she falls under his spell.
Barney's Version packs an awful lot of story into a hefty 132-minute running time, but the cast is mostly up to it. For Giamatti, this ranks with Sideways and American Splendor as his best big-screen leading role. Barney is anxious, needy, scheming, and wisecracking. He's a big, colorful character. And while the film does not paper over his faults, it also allows him surprising depths of compassion beneath his grouchy bluster. Barney, like most people, might operate on a sliding scale of morality, but he will defend his father, stand with a friend, and fall for a woman with his mind and heart as well as his body.
Giamatti has a great rapport with Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney's retired-cop father in a warm, unfussy performance. Their scenes together are perhaps the best in the film. Also tremendous is Pike, a newish British actress who, in three supporting performances over the past two years — this, An Education, and Made in Dagenham — has established herself as an actress worth seeking out. She sparkles here.
Other characters don't fare as well. Driver's character is directed as too much of a stereotypical "Jewish princess," allowed her dignity but still too much of a cartoon. And a subplot about a local police detective who's penned a true-crime book accusing Barney of foul play in the disappearance of a friend is underdeveloped. That this subplot never intersects with scenes related to Barney's marriage to Miriam suggests that the filmmakers had too much story to juggle even for their two-hours-plus running time.
Sprawling to a fault, Barney's Version feels like an adapted novel — scenes lifted here and there in piecemeal fashion. It's more engaging and surprising than expected but doesn't cohere enough to stay with you. The filmmakers seem so busy trying to get enough plot and performance on the screen that they skimp on mise-en-scène. Barney likes to get drunk and watch hockey games and Canadian filmmakers David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan are given cameos, but otherwise Barney's Version doesn't have a strong sense of place.
Opens Friday, February 18th