As films like Sideways and American Splendor have shown us, Paul Giamatti is one of those rare actors who can humanize irritable curmudgeons and turn them into likeable, or at least mildly amusing characters. In his Golden Globe-winning performance in Barney’s Version, Giamatti stars as grouchy Jewish TV producer Barney Panofsky, who looks back over his event-filled life and his three marriages, as his memory begins to deteriorate due to Alzheimer’s.
The film is a dark comedy based on a novel by the great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, and it centers on themes of truth and loyalty, and the irony that Barney lacks the ability to achieve either. He’s a selfish boozing-womanizing fool who ages but never seems to mature.
The most engaging portions of the film concern Barney’s doomed marriages, the first to the neurotic and free-spirited Clara (played by Rachelle Lefevre) whom he marries during his younger years in Rome, because he thinks she’s pregnant with his child. That doesn’t work out; he returns home to Montreal and picks a shrill, pampered Jewish brat (played by Minnie Driver) to be Wife No 2. This marriage collapses just as quickly, not least because he meets third-wife-to-be Miriam (played by Rosamund Pike) at the reception of his own second wedding.
Though he has three wives, Barney’s chemistry is most pronounced with Dustin Hoffman who stars as his wildly inappropriate detective father, and watching the two men play off against each other is one of the real joys of this surprisingly overlong film.
To be honest, there is little in terms of plot here; this is in fact an engaging character study of a man who it’s hard to sympathize with, but impossible not to like. Watch it for some fine acting from Giamatti.
I’m going with three out of five for Barney’s Version. It meanders occasionally, but in the end, it’s an entertaining, enjoyable film.