Paul Giamatti balances annoying flaws, endearing strengths in 'Barney's Version'


Some people like movies where stuff happens.

But some of us prefer movies that focus on the people the stuff happens to.

Movies like "Barney's Version," a reelin'-in-the-years chronicle of the inexplicably appealing title character.

Barney Panofsky's a piece of work, all right: an irascible, yet strangely irresistible, rascal with a world-class talent for alienating everyone who loves him. (Which is a lot more people than he deserves.)

A lot of actors would have trouble balancing Barney's many obnoxious traits with his few, but undeniable, strengths.

Fortunately, Paul Giamatti's not one of them. And his invaluable presence as the maddening Mr. Panofsky makes "Barney's Version" far more compelling, and far more credible, than it otherwise might be.

Little wonder that it's up for 11 Genie Awards, Canada's Oscar equivalent. (Let's hope Giamatti wins something for his trouble; Lord knows, the folks at Hollywood's Academy Awards love to ignore him.) But at least "Barney's Version" is up for one Oscar: best makeup.

It's an appropriate nomination, considering how the movie's title character (and those in his orbit) slip back and forth in time.

Based on the final novel by the late Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, "Barney's Version" finds the author returning to his favorite literary focus: Montreal's Jewish community.

It's a familiar setting for those who have seen Richler-scripted adaptations of two semiautobiographical novels: 1974's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," with Richard Dreyfuss as the young man on the make, and 1985's "Joshua Then And Now," featuring James Woods as the title writer.

When we first meet Barney, he's a successful 70-something TV producer at the aptly named Totally Unnecessary Productions, home of the famously awful soap opera "O'Malley of the North." (Fittingly, its title Mountie is played by none other than "Due South" Mountie Paul Gross, who's joined by such stellar Canadian filmmakers as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand in sly cameos.)

Barney tools around Montreal in a big Mercedes, puffs omnipresent Cuban cigars, drinks whiskey that's almost as aged as he is -- and, as usual, tries to figure out how to undo all the damage he's done, before he goes right out and causes more.

The movie then flashes back to hippie-era Rome, where Barney and his arty pals pursue a life of heedless hedonism. Life seems all too easy for Barney's best friend, drug-addled writer Boogie (Scott Speedman). But free-spirited artist Clara (Rachelle Lefevre of TV's "Off the Map") has a dark side -- which renders her all the more vulnerable to the well-intentioned Barney when they marry.

She's the first Mrs. P.

The second (Minnie Driver) is a strident Jewish Princess Barney encounters back in Montreal, where he's selling Israel bonds and working with his TV-producer uncle. She's a definite catch -- one Barney's dad Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a street-savvy cop, can't help but admire. After all, she's rich, she's smart, she's got a swell rack -- many marriages have been built on far less.

But not Barney's marriage. It begins to dissolve during their lavish wedding reception -- when he catches sight of Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike), a stunning and sophisticated siren with whom he falls instantly and irrevocably in love.

Watching how, and why, Miriam becomes the third -- and, to Barney, the only -- Mrs. P gives "Barney's Version" some of its most winning moments, tracing our perverse protagonist's plunge into hopeless-romantic abandon with amused, affectionate clarity.

If only more of "Barney's Version" were equally precise.

TV veterans both, director Richard J. Lewis ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") and screenwriter Michael Konyves never quite conquer the movie's sprawling nature. At times (as in the Rome sequence, and in a pivotal murder subplot), it rushes past key developments. At others, it slows down -- often more than enough -- to focus on the contradictory characters at its heart. And, of course, on the actors who bring them to life.

Hoffman (who might have made a fine Barney in his heyday) gives the senior Panofsky an unrepentantly vulgar, yet surprisingly tender, zest for life. (It's also a kick to see Hoffman's son Jake play Barney's son -- Izzy's grandson -- with such chip-off-the-block intensity.) And Pike, after impressive portrayals in "An Education" and "Made in Dagenham," continues her winning streak, bringing both serene elegance and down-to-earth depth to Miriam.

And as the unforgettable title character, Giamatti offers yet more proof (as if we needed it) of his matchless ability to convey Barney's all-too-obvious flaws with brutal accuracy, yet somehow remain sympathetic in spite -- or, perhaps, because -- of them.

Yes, Barney can be a self-centered, annoying jerk -- and he knows it -- and he never quite figures out how to make things better until it's too late. Yet he keeps trying, thereby reminding us, as if we could ever forget, what being human's all about.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

Rules for posting comments

Comments posted below are from readers. In no way do they represent the view of Stephens Media LLC or this newspaper. This is a public forum. Read our guidelines for posting. If you believe that a commenter has not followed these guidelines, please click the FLAG icon next to the comment.