Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Richard J. Lewis
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Sometimes a single performance can make one forget a film’s inherent flaws and make the movie-going experience more memorable than it has any right to be. Though the film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s acclaimed 1997 novel Barney’s Version is a pretty decent move in and of itself, a marvelous Golden Globe-winning performance from Paul Giamatti is really the reason to see it.
Giamatti is no stranger to accolades. He has long been considered a brilliant supporting actor, and his career has followed a similar trajectory to that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both started as bit players in shlubby comic-relief type roles, and both have amassed a truly impressive body of work, stretching into leading-man territory. Hoffman’s big moment came in 2005 when he won an Oscar for his magnificent turn as Truman Capote in Capote, and though Barney’s Version might not give Giamatti the same kind of recognition, it is further proof that he can carry an entire film on his shoulders.
As Barney Panofsky, a hard-drinking TV producer of schlocky fluff that falls in and out of love with various women over the course of his life, the talented actor never hits a false note. Aided by some impressive make-up, he convincingly ages over four decades and is somehow able to create a sympathetic portrait of what is essentially a sad-sack womanizing blowhard. Though the character often says and does dubious things, director Richard J. Lewis (no relation to the famous comedian) and writer Michael Konyves are careful not to be condescending toward the character, while also never making any apologies for his often-erratic behavior.
The plot is mostly told in flashback, tracks Barney’s three failed marriages, the friendships that he tried to maintain, and takes place mainly in Montreal (though there are some globe-trotting trips to Europe). With an affinity for malt whiskey, Monte Cristo cigars, and watching Hockey at the local bar instead of attending to his domestic responsibilities, Barney is the classic male anti-hero with a case of arrested development. His first wife, a free-spirited airhead named Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) whom he marries in Rome after she gets pregnant barely even registers as a human being, even as a tragic plot twist is hurriedly introduced. His second wife (played by Minnie Driver) is a privileged Jewish chatterbox with an overbearing family that flirts with caricature. Though Driver clearly relishes the chance to play such a broad stereotype, Barney’s initial attraction to her is thinly developed, making the subsequent scenes of them arguing as the marriage disintegrates feel somewhat perfunctory. What works much better is Barney meeting the love of his life, a woman named Miriam (Rosamund Pike), ironically and amusingly at his own wedding reception. That he eventually wins her heart and builds a life with her, much to the approval of his rascally, good-humored father (played winningly by Dustin Hoffman), is a testament to Giamatti’s undeniable charm. Barney is coarse, narcissistic, and prone to drunkenness; yet there is a vulnerability to Giamatti’s performance that allows the audience to peak underneath the layers. The man has a big heart and a penchant for ruining everything good in his life, and though most of the time the ruin is self-inflicted, it is still hard not to root for him to get things together.
Barney’s Version is a flawed film. As a sprawling semi-comic tale of one man’s adult life, there are times when it feels both rushed and baggy. Certain elements—such as the first marriage— are handled much too hurriedly and others like a subplot involving a police detective and murder mystery are much too drawn out. Tonally the movie sometimes loses its way, becoming overburdened with subplots and extraneous characters. For example, the relationship between Barney and his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) is quite interesting, but as the film progresses both characters begin behaving in a way that feels contrived and not in keeping with how they have been set up initially. Speedman is decent as a bohemian drug-addicted writer, but his character eventually is abandoned in an unconvincing fashion. Truthfully, the movie is at its best when it simply sticks to examining the life of a flawed man and the lengths he will go in order to keep his one true love. The film ultimately overcomes its flaws because Giamatti makes the audience care about a character who is basically unlikeable, which is no small feat. It is the best performance of his career.