Like its central character, Barney’s Version is lumpy, disorganized, and simmering with emotions that build to a messy, overflowing boil. Based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, the poet laureate of Jewish Montreal, it features a monumentally disagreeable central character.
Barney Panofsky is a creature of childish tantrums and appetites, a griper on the scale of Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Saul Bellow’s Herzog. We encounter him, sour and 60ish, poking the rubble of his failed third marriage with a stick, or rather a telephone. He calls the husband of his latest ex at ungodly hours to make unkind jokes and smirks when the guy has a heart attack.
Barney is a philistine (a producer of soap operas), and a huge kvetch, grappling with life’s common problems as if they were inconveniences visited exclusively on him. Barney hardly can order coffee without growling two allegations, three insults, one threat, several curt requests, and a disturbing insinuation.
Blessedly, Barney is played by Paul Giamatti, who has the gift of engaging our affection without begging for our approval. We can’t help but like the louse even when he is at his faithless, philandering worst. His performance, which earned the Golden Globe, makes this film a picaresque character study rather than a dark, disordered family dramedy.
We follow Barney from his salad days with free-loving expatriates in 1970s Rome through his liver-spotted decline as a maker of televised stupidities. He’s a lively character, no doubt, who can change the direction of his life as if it were a game with a reset button. His marital trials lead to broken friendships, broken hearts, and more than one death. An overzealous, anti-Semitic police detective tries to convict Barney of murder in the court of public opinion. Things manage to get even worse from there.
Giamatti, and Dustin Hoffman in a funny, soulful turn as Barney’s earthy dad, Izzy, don’t exactly hold the project together, but they clutch our attention in a firm grip every second they’re onscreen. When Barney returns to the marital market after his starter marriage implodes, he introduces dad, a retired cop, to his prospective in-laws, prune-faced grandees who view their dinner guest with undisguised disdain. When Izzy spins yarns about his crime-fighting days, they accuse him of gratuitous violence. “Oh no,” he says in naive sincerity. “I always got paid.” Hoffman convinces you that this father would support his son in whatever mad scheme he concocted.
As the deceitful hippie and the vulgar heiress who become the first and second Mrs. P, Rachelle Lefevre and Minnie Driver do their best to humanize characters written with snakes for hair. Rosamund Pike, as the shiksa of Barney’s dreams, adds an aura of class, grace, and composure to his life and the film. When he chases her onto a train, she’s reading a paperback copy of Bellow’s novel Herzog, so she has a fair picture of what to expect. Ray Charles could have seen it coming.
The remainder of the cast is uneven. Mark Addy, so fine in the Red Riding trilogy, overplays the detective fixated on proving Barney a killer. Scott Speedman doesn’t convince as the glad-handing writer who became the younger Barney’s best pal in Italy and returns to his life decades later as a junkie. If you recognize such stalwarts of the Canadian film industry as directors Denys Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire) and David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises), you will laugh at who has been cast as cringing background servants for Barney to order around.
But the biggest shock of recognition comes from looking at Giamatti’s deeply flawed Barney and spotting a bit of ourselves gazing back.