Now available on DVD, “Barney’s Version” presents a critical quandary. It boasts one of last year’s best performances: Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his work here and deservedly so. He’s asked to make us sympathize or, at least, see the point of view of a real bum of a human being, starting with his young manhood and moving to the end of his life. That he pulls this off is a mark of Giamatti’s skill, particularly because the movie is something of a muddle.
He has plenty of help from a great supporting cast, including Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, and, especially, Rosamund Pike. The women play wives two and three in Barney Panofsky’s tumultuous life, while Hoffman plays his father, one of the few stabilizing factors. (Hoffman’s son Jake also appears in a cameo as Barney’s disaffected son.) Working with Michael Konyves’ screenplay of Mordecai Richler’s novel, director Richard J. Lewis leaves too many questions unanswered or hastily dispatched at film’s end.
The biggest question is what these women see in Barney that we don’t. The producer of a long-running soap opera on Canadian TV, Barney is wealthy and generous to his family and friends. He dotes on his kids and is smitten by Wife #3, Miriam (Pike), so much so that he tries to get her to run away with him on the night of his wedding to Wife #2 (Driver). In short, Barney is something of a romantic.
He’s also a drunk, he flies into rages, and finally he cheats on the object of his adoration. Sure, he’s loyal to his friends, but they mostly need to be given some tough love or a slap upside the head, rather than indulged. In particular, his would-be novelist/drug addict buddy Boogie (Scott Speedman), should have been ditched well before the point at which he causes Barney’s biggest problem. After a drunken fight at his country home, Barney is accused of shooting and killing Boogie. Eventually, though he is never formally charged, the suspicion comes back to haunt him in the form of a book by the investigating detective (played by Mark Addy).
That book is at the heart of Richler’s novel, which takes the form of Barney’s response to or version of what happened during that fight. In the movie, though, it appears to be an annoyance, at worst. And it ultimately gets him out of his disastrous second marriage and into the arms of his true love, apparently unscathed and unrepentant—a hard pill to swallow.
The last third of the movie, which is also the slowest, does give Giamatti and Pike some excellent scenes together, the two actors conveying the extraordinary complexity of the relationship. That Barney is also moving into the first stages of Alzheimer’s further complicates matters, as does the death of his father, where Giamatti’s performance is especially moving.
Nominated for a number of film festival awards and winner of several, “Barney’s Version” has a curious appeal, its problems notwithstanding. Its structure, making use of multiple flashbacks, and its omissions of important material will frustrate some viewers; Giamatti’s multi-layered performance will fascinate others. The movie is rated “R” for language and some sexual content: it’s adult fare, in any case, dealing in the messiness of life in a way that your basic action film does not.