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 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.
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.
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.
But “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.
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