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Poor marketing hurt 'Barney's Version' in the U.S., director says

Paul Giamatti, left, and Dustin Hoffman in a scene from "Barney's Version"

Takashi Seida/CP

Barney's Version earned critical acclaim and recognition from the Oscars and Golden Globes, but the creative minds who spent years labouring over the film were disappointed by how many people actually saw the film.

The Paul Giamatti-starring flick - adapted from legendary Montreal author Mordecai Richler's beloved semi-autobiographical 1997 novel - grossed about $8.5 million worldwide, but struggled to find an audience in the U.S. At its peak, the film only screened in 281 North American theatres.

"It had a great response with those who saw it," said Genie- and Emmy-nominated director Richard J. Lewis.

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"I just don't think it was that well marketed or distributed."

While Lewis declined to go into details on those perceived failures, he's hopeful Barney will find a second life on DVD and Blu-ray when it's released Tuesday.

Barney's Version is a sprawling romantic dramedy, spanning decades in the life of the titular cigar-chewing, booze-swilling curmudgeon (played by Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe for his daring performance).

It's a richly complex, bittersweet grown-up drama - a type of film that, these days, seems about as appealing to Hollywood execs as a wintertime dip in the St. Lawrence River.

"People really like these kind of adult movies, they like to see them, but the studios don't really want to make them," the film's screenwriter Michael Konyves said over the line from California, where he was trying to get new TV projects off the ground.

"It's not very often that anybody's going to pay you anything to write a drama. You can't even bring up the word 'drama' in L.A. now. They won't touch it."

But he's optimistic about the film's potential to find an audience in its home release.

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"I actually think it's the kind of movie that will do very well on video. I think it's the kind of thing that people hear about and you get a lot of word of mouth," he said.

"People less and less go and see these kind of movies in the theatre.... I understand everyone going to the theatre to see Inception, but we've become much more accustomed to seeing these kind of stories on HBO shows, on Showtime, on all the cable networks - that's where all independent storytelling has kind of moved to."

It's not surprising, then, that the people behind Barney's Version seemed to give the home release their full attention.

The DVD includes a commentary track with Lewis, Konyves and producer Robert Lantos, an archived interview with the late Richler, and a recording of a public Q-&-A between Giamatti and author Annette Insdorf.

However, the true treasure trove for fans of the film and book might be the nearly 30 minutes of deleted scenes included here.

After all, adapting Richler's book for the screen was long thought to be an impossible task, a fool's errand. The novel was endlessly complex, littered with characters, subplots and footnotes as well as an era-hopping format that would surely be difficult to reproduce coherently onscreen.

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Development of the movie stretched over more than a decade, with Konyves, Lewis and Lantos devoting years to re-writing, arguing and reshaping the book into something that would make sense in a movie theatre. Along the way, of course, they were forced to excise some key material, footage that has been restored on the DVD.

Viewers now get a more revealing glimpse of Barney's rocky relationship with his first wife - Rachelle Lefevre's feisty, unstable Clara - as well as more of his tension-ridden exchange with her estranged father, portrayed by Saul Rubinek.

There's also a great comic exchange between Minnie Driver's second wife and Barney's mensch of a dad (Dustin Hoffman), a sojourn to New York that was completely cut from the film and another clip that allows Driver's shrill character to wrest a little sympathy from viewers.

The DVD release also includes footage that Lewis ranks among his most difficult omissions: scenes that explore Barney's difficult relationship with his son, which was barely a factor in the theatrical version of the movie.

"What really is missing a lot is the relationship between the father and his son - that relationship, the movie really doesn't do justice to the book, in my mind," said Lewis, who also lamented that the film had to cut the character Hymie Mintzbaum, a movie producer friend of Barney's in the book.

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