Paul Giamatti wears the role of Barney Panofsky, the prickly, big-hearted hero of “Barney’s Version,” like it’s a tailored suit. He takes obviously pleasure in it, and, watching, so do we — it’s a great fit. Barney is a man with an appreciation for life’s more rarefied and delicate things, though he’s earthbound himself, a creature of dark impulses and fleshly appetites, a fellow who relishes a drink and a cigar and a hockey game.
Yes, hockey. Barney, like Mordecai Richler, the author of the novel on which this film is based and to whom it’s dedicated (Michael Konyves wrote the screenplay), is Canadian, residing in Montreal and overseeing a popular, wretched-looking long-running soap opera about a Mountie called “O’Malley of the North.” (David Cronenberg cameos as an episode director who falls asleep on the job — Denys Arcand and Atom Egoyan also supposedly make appearances, though I failed to spot the latter.) He’s been married three times, divorced twice, but he’s only ever been in love once, with Miriam (Rosamund Pike), for whom he tumbled head over heels on the day of his wedding to another woman.
Directed by Richard J. Lewis, “Barney’s Version” runs 132 minutes and feels like it could have stretched twice that. Like so many reverent adaptations, it seems compressed thanks to a reluctance to leave any elements of the original out — and there’s a lot of ground to cover, since “Barney’s Version” is literally Barney’s version of his own swooping life story, recounted to no one in particular as a counterpoint to a recently published sleazy true crime tell-all that claims he’s a murderer. Characters and storylines suffer, but while the film is overstuffed, it’s overstuffed with many good things, and if it doesn’t come together perfectly it still offers the pleasing sensation of a long ramble with good friends.
It’s good friends with which Barney’s keeping company, leading a bohemian ’70s lifestyle in Rome, in the film’s first flashback — “Barney’s Version” takes place primarily in the past, flickering forward on occasion to check in on the embittered, lonely present day Barney. There’s Cedric, aspiring painter Leo and the charming, shiftless, substance-abusing writer Boogie (Scott Speedman). Barney is their “only friend with a real job,” and he’s about to get married for the first time to the unstable Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who’s pregnant with what she’s pretty sure is his baby.
When things ends in tragedy, Barney scurries home to Montreal in anguish, cleaning up, getting a job from his uncle and courting a nice Jewish girl (Minnie Driver) who transforms, as soon as a ring is on her finger, into a ballbusting stereotypical princess. Fortunately and unfortunately for Barney, he meets the true love of his life right after that happens — Miriam, a guest at the wedding, a willowy beauty whose train home to New York the drunken groom tries to chase down.
Barney’s crazy courtship of and eventual life with Miriam should be the centerpiece of the story, but Miriam’s a cipher, a woman whose unexplained embrace of Barney seems somehow to stem from her larger love of social responsibility — this jowly, impulsive, persistent guy seems so desperately to need cool-headed balance in his life, which she sees herself as able to provide. But Giamatti is great here, showing Barney as lit from within when he’s around her, and demonstrating how as the years pass he slowly looses his grip on her until she slips away.
It’s Barney’s relationship with his dad Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a retired cop, that’s instead the film’s true heart. I don’t know how plausible the idea of Hoffman siring Giamatti is in terms of the two actors’ physicality, but the idea makes sense, and the scenes with the two of them are categorically moving. Barney is ferociously protective of his widowed working class father, particularly when he gets involved with his unnamed second wife, whose wealthy parents look down on Izzy’s tales of crime and punishment and police brutality.
At dinner with them for the first time, Izzy is called out by the patriarch for saying that he never made detective on the force because he’s Jewish — maybe it was his conduct, the other man suggests, that kept him from succeeding professionally. Izzy looks at his son and then swallows his pride and then genuflects to the rich asshole so that things can continue smoothly. Izzy returns the favor at the wedding when his father-in-law tries to cut the two of them off at the bar. Later in life, Izzy will get a glimpse of the dark side of the law his father so glibly talks about, and the man will come to his rescue once again.
So Barney’s life is marked by loving fiercely if not always well, and by yearning for art while only having a talent for business, aspects of his character that also comes into play in his relationship with his gifted, irresponsible best friend Boogie, which provides the frame to which this shaggy dog story is leashed. It’s another underdeveloped thread that can’t provide the closure it’s meant to, but by that point it’s incidental. It’s Barney, despite and because of all his failings and disappointments, that we care about, and that’s really a credit to Giamatti’s marvelous performance.
“Barney’s Version” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will open for a wider run January 14th.