Image: Universal International Pictures
Barney’s Version is the story of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti). From his youth in Rome to his old age in Montreal, we follow him as he goes through two marriages before finding Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the love of his life at his second wedding.
About five minutes into Barney’s Version, we come to the realisation that this is a character that could only be played by Paul Giamatti. He’s venal, an alcoholic, often bitter but also loving, utterly sincere but also prone to making terrible mistakes. Giamatti makes the character human and somehow likeable in spite of his many flaws. Barney often behaves terribly, but we’re shown enough sweetness to keep us engaged.
Adapted from the book by Mordecai Richler, the film is often a little unwieldy. Some relationships aren’t detailed enough, and there is the sense that the filmmakers are hurrying to get through the big events as quickly as possible. It’s one of those films in which the actors are often plastered under old age make-up, which is convincing enough. It’s funny in places and sad in others, and often both at once. Director Richard J. Lewis does solid if not outstanding work, and it’s the actors who do a lot of the heavy lifting.
As we’ve mentioned, Giamatti is superb. It really is impossible to see the character played by anyone else, but that’s not to say that the actor relies on old tricks. Barney is a fully realized, believable character. Pike (An Education) is excellent as the beautiful, understanding Miriam, while Minnie Driver makes Barney’s second wife irritatingly monstrous in that very specific Minnie Driver way. Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Barney’s loving father Izzy, while Scott Speedman (Underworld) impresses as Barney’s elegantly wasted (then inelegantly opium addicted) best friend Boogie.
The film is also bolstered by the best of the Canadian film industry. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, The Sweet Hereafter) plays Blair (a possible contender for Miriam’s heart), while directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) have cameos.
The film is more than a little uneven, and if you don’t warm to Barney early on then you’ll hate him for the rest of the just-over-two-hours running time. But it’s a well-observed life story of an imperfect man, with terrific performances. We can heartily recommend it to Giamatti fans, and those interested in a leisurely drama.
Don’t want to spend two hours watching a film about a flawed, neurotic, alcoholic? Skip it. For those who do, Barney’s Version is a well-acted, funny, touching drama in spite of its flaws.