‘Barney’s’ wanders, but to what end? Giamatti gives another fine performance
‘Barney’s Version’’ is a smart, well-acted two hours at the art house, full of witty observations and fellow feeling. But, really, it has no business being a movie.
Start with the title, which comes straight from the final novel by the late, great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, whose edgy nudnik heroes have been played on film by Richard Dreyfuss (1974’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’’), James Woods (1985’s “Joshua Then and Now’’), and now Paul Giamatti. The novel is a scoundrel’s memoir, the life of one Barney Panofsky, serial husband and producer of crap Canadian TV shows, and it’s told in a briskly hilarious first-person tone of nostalgia and bile only slightly crimped by early-onset Alzheimer’s. (Barney’s grown son cleans up the factual errors in discreet footnotes.)
That voice — a clear-eyed yet stubbornly self-absorbed perspective that renders Barney’s manuscript a comic “version’’ of his life rather than the “truth’’ — is entirely missing from Richard J. Lewis’s adaptation. There’s not even a voice-over, and I can’t recall the last time I missed a voice-over. But “Barney’s Version’’ needs something to let us inside its hero’s shaggy head, and workmanlike filmmaking and another fine Giamatti performance aren’t enough. Without that antic, intellectual, self-sabotaging tone to give it focus, this is a life more ordinary, rather than less.
We get four decades of it, all watchable, with Barney slowly progressing from Jew-fro to bald spot. In youth, he leaves Montreal’s Jewish quarter to cavort in Rome (postwar Paris in the novel) with his bohemian buddies, chief among them the writer Boogie (Scott Speedman) and the artist Leo (Thomas Trabacchi). Boogie’s disappearance while visiting Barney back in Canada will become the murderous cloud of suspicion that hangs over the hero’s entire life.
But first there are women to marry and divorce. Mrs. Panofsky comes and goes so quickly I can’t remember who plays her; Mrs. Panofsky #2 is a Jewish Canadian Princess caricature rendered nearly human by Minnie Driver. It’s at their wedding that Barney — that rascal — meets the love of his life, the elegant Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he will woo, marry, and bedevil for the next few decades. Pike cuts a truly gracious figure, and that’s one of the problems with the film: We never quite understand what Miriam sees in this schlub. When a tweedy radio producer played by Bruce Greenwood comes sniffing around late in the film, he and Miriam are such matching andirons that matters seem overly preordained.
Richler mined a rich strain of Canadian-Jewish pride and self-loathing, and his heroes are more aggressive about shooting themselves in the thumb than the men you find in Bellow or Roth. While Giamatti has a corner on Barney’s mordant humor and his love of a good cigar, there’s a small piece of chutzpah — of unreflective forward drive — missing from the performance, and you get it when Dustin Hoffman turns up as the hero’s even more rascally father, Izzy Panofsky. The actor’s son, Jake, plays Barney’s son, and there’s enough of a Hoffman family resemblance that you wonder if something hasn’t skipped a generation and whether Barney isn’t a genetic outlier.
Still, “Barney’s Version’’ goes down pleasantly enough, with or without a point. The director amusingly casts other Canadian directors in bit parts — look, there’s Atom Egoyan! David Cronenberg! Denys Arcand! — and it solves the question of the missing Boogie in even more oblique fashion than the book. Yet the overt pathos of the final scenes, as the aging hero heads into the gray, feels like a misstep and a concession. In Barney’s version, self-pity is one of life’s little pleasures and other people’s pity is for the goys.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.