Paul Giamatti impresses in story of a Jewish TV producer who tries to get life right
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman
Paul Giamatti isn’t precisely the model of a modern leading man. With his lumpy figure and naturalistic acting skills, he’s more of what you’d call Best Supporting Actor material. And yet, he proved himself a compelling central figure in the award-winning 2008 mini-series John Adams. In the Canadian feature film drama Barney’s Version, he again takes on a title role with mesmerizing results. (Not to mention a second Golden Globe win.)
Barney Panofsky is a post-middle-aged schlub of a man reflecting back on his many decades of seemingly undeserved success. Nowadays, he’s the wealthy, thrice-married producer behind a long-running Canadian soap opera. Back in the heady days of 1974, however, he’s just another college graduate kicking around Europe with his hippie artist friends. One unplanned pregnancy later, though, and he’s marrying a too-free-spirited painter named Clara (Rachelle Lefevre, Victoria from Twilight). That doesn’t exactly end well. Later on, a little older, if not notably wiser, Barney marries a materially minded Jewish gal (Minnie Driver). It would be an appropriate match, except for the fact that Barney meets the brainy gal of his dreams at his wedding reception. After months of dogged pursuit (and one acrimonious divorce), Barney finally lands the elusive Miriam (Rosamund Pike, Pride & Prejudice). ... Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike? Not in your wildest dreams, Giamatti.
Barney’s Version covers a wide, seemingly unfocused swath of time and space. There is the lingering question of a certain murder, which Barney may or may not have committed, but that’s not as big a deal as it sounds. It’s just one small plot thread among many. Still, the story does have its precedents in such “life of a mensch” sagas as Herzog, Portnoy’s Complaint or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—the latter of which was written by Mordecai Richler, who penned the original 1997 novel of Barney’s Version. Though the film remains faithful to the novel, it loses some of the complexity inherent in the title. In the latter stages of his life, our protagonist ends up suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which renders his “autobiography” somewhat questionable. The film, unable to replicate the book’s first-person point of view, presents us with the usual, dispassionate third-person “version” of life. Less intimate than a novel, to be sure, but perfectly acceptable.
Giamatti does magnificent, understated work here, convincingly shepherding his character from 1974 all the way up to 2010. Rosamund Pike sticks by his side the longest, doing equally convincing work over a 30-or-so-year period. The supporting cast has got some ringers as well. Scott Speedman (Underworld) shows off good grit as Barney’s charismatic junkie pal Boogie. Dustin Hoffman is a treat as Barney’s tell-it-like-it-is pop. And yes, that’s Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg moonlighting as wage slaves on the set of Barney’s ridiculous RCMP soap opera.
All in all, Barney’s Version is an impeccable effort and a tribute to Richler’s original work. But it’s through the efforts of Giamatti that the film comes to life. Barney is the sort of man who is mostly defined by his faults. He’s fat, bald, smokes big cigars, drinks too much Scotch, throws caution to the wind when it comes to women, and is by and large an asshole. But as his story is dealt out in mismatched, time-shuffled chapters, we see the whole of his life and realize maybe he isn’t as much of an asshole as he seems. Giamatti gives the character just enough of the hopeless dreamer quality that—in the end—we kinda like the old schmuck. Possibly because we understand that poor Barney, despite his flaws, never had a mean bone in his body. That’s as good an epitaph as most of us can hope for.