It's no surprise it took 13 years to bring Mordecai Richler's last novel, Barney's Version, to the screen. The book, with its erudite, unreliable narrator, who is justifying his life through a fog of Alzheimer's disease, is all about the game of language.
For their adaptation, producer Robert Lantos, director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves have abandoned the impossible and settled for the manageable. Cutting out Richler's intellectual acrobatics and stripping down the plot, they've created a feisty domestic comedy about a curmudgeon with a heart, looking back over his misspent life.
That's plenty ambitious enough; it's rare to find movies that trace any character over several decades, never mind an Everyman. What really sells it as a story is star Paul Giamatti's boisterous, wide-ranging and seductive performance. As a screen presence, Giamatti has a secret weapon beyond the obvious balding pate, paunch and bugged-out eyes: His voice, a mellifluously elegant instrument, suggests an inner refinement and contradicts what meets the eye. He's the soul of a poet trapped in the shape of a clown, and to that extent a perfect Barney.
We meet him near the end of his life, in his mid-60s, a hard-drinking hack Montreal television producer and the founder of a tax-dodging TV company called Totally Unnecessary Productions. Although suffering from failing memory, he's still pining for his remarried third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
In the film's reworking of the plot, the impetus for Barney's journey into his memory is the publication of a book by a detective (Mark Addy) who investigated the disappearance and possible murder of Barney's best friend, the attractively dissolute Boogie (Scott Speedman) years before. The past unfolds in a series of punchy, efficient scenes of several locations and changing hairlines.
We flash back to Rome in the seventies (changed from the novel's bohemian Paris in the fifties) where Barney, Boogie and their other friends are enjoying a post-hippie life of art, sex and café talk. After a disastrous early marriage to the promiscuous and unstable Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), Barney returns to Montreal, where he lands a supposedly good catch (Minnie Driver), the daughter of a wealthy snobbish family.
Director Lewis's most lively scene is the multistrand sequence covering Barney's ill-advised and eventful wedding reception. While getting drunk with his good-hearted, déclassé policeman dad (Dustin Hoffman), fighting with his future in-laws, and trying to follow a Stanley Cup game featuring his beloved Montreal Canadiens, Barney suddenly falls in love with one of his wedding guests, the exquisite Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Ditching his own celebration, he follows her to the train station to declare his devotion.
She sends him home but, faithful in his fashion, Barney continues to pursue Miriam, now in New York, while his own marriage degenerates. For a while, so does the movie: Driver's shrill caricature of a spoiled Jewish wife is painful. She drives out of Barney's life soon enough, shortly before the film's second pivotal sequence, which results in the end of the marriage and the accidental death of Boogie.
Freed to marry again, Barney promptly proposes to Miriam who, despite recognizing his alcoholic desperation, decides she sees something decent in him. With her perfectly modulated voice and looks that barely change appearance over the supposed decades, Miriam comes across as a bit of a plaster saint, though easy enough to accept as Barney's ideal.
For a few years, all is well, until Miriam decides to return to work in radio at the urging of a colleague, Blair (Bruce Greenwood). Blair is everything that Barney isn't: Handsome, politically correct and sensitive, he brings out the worst of Barney's insecure, obnoxious tendencies.
In the film's final act, the filmmakers rush to wheel out a lot of last-act pathos and evidence of good deeds to prove Barney is more mensch than monster, but it feels awkwardly pious: Surely the roguish appeal of the character and of Giamatti's performance is that Barney is not a man who could reconcile to sentimental conventions.
- Directed by Richard J. Lewis
- Written by Michael Konyves
- Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman