'Barney's Version' Showcases Giamatti, Pike
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
To paraphrase the old joke, you don't have to be Jewish, or Canadian, to love "Barney's Version" ... but it wouldn't hurt. Adapted from Canadian author Mordecai Richler's last novel, published in 1997, the film chronicles the life and times of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a Montreal-born Jew who winds up a successful TV producer -- and, along the way, goes through three marriages and an accusation of murder.
Directed by Richard J. Lewis, a veteran TV director on both sides of the 49th parallel, "Barney's Version" lacks visual flash, and even forgoes the memory tricks of the original novel, which was festooned with falsehoods and footnotes as Barney descended into Alzheimer's disease. Instead, it's a plain frame built to showcase the acting of Paul Giamatti as Barney and Rosamund Pike as his last, and most loving, wife, Miriam.
Giamatti has played men like Barney before -- full of both shamelessness and embarrassment, unhappy hustlers with an eye on short-term pleasure and blind to any long-term goal. But in many ways, Barney is unlike any other character Giamatti has played: To be a Montreal Jew is to be a religious and ethnic minority inside a linguistic minority (of English-speaking Quebecois) inside a political minority (as Quebec is but one part of Canada) inside a geographic one (as Canada is nestled next to its leviathan neighbor, America). Barney, like all of Richler's characters, knows the game of life is rigged against him, and thus he schemes, scams and scrabbles to win as a matter of spite. Giamatti -- whose face can show in one expression both the glee of getting away with something and the amazement that he did so at all -- fits the part perfectly.
But if Giamatti's gleefully vulgar Barney is the heart of the film, Pike's Miriam is its soul. Barney meets Miriam and instantly falls in love with her -- too bad it's at the reception for his own wedding to another woman. But Barney pursues her nonetheless, and while Miriam can't doubt his interest, she can question his intent. "Life's real," she explains in the face of his grand gestures. "It's made of little things." Pike delivers a fantastic supporting performance here -- not just a shape for Barney to hang his affections on, but a real person, and Pike moves Miriam through her years and changes with skill and grace. Yes, there's old-age makeup and changing hairstyles as days become decades, but Pike never lets those things act for her, and her work is superb.
It's too bad that Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves hew so closely to Richler's book that its plot becomes a trap; specifically they could have, and should have, excised the subplot where Barney's bohemian writer friend Boogie (a fine, sly Scott Speedman) disappears after a drunken, armed argument with Barney, leaving him as the No. 1 suspect. But other supporting parts -- like Minnie Driver as the second Mrs. Panofsky, Dustin Hoffman as Barney's cop dad and Bruce Greenwood as an insufferably superior WASP-y vegan -- add to the shaggy-dog charms of the rambling plot and the loosely structured film. (Sharp-eyed cinephiles will note cameos from David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand; again, you don't have to be Canadian, but it couldn't hurt.)
The pleasures are not in in-jokes and supporting parts, not in plotting or the film's unremarkable murder-investigation subplot. They are in Giamatti and Pike, two actors who, in a time when parts in dramas seem to be growing more and more small and flavorless, are offered a banquet. They savor the opportunity, and their satisfaction is evident in every moment they are on-screen, whether it's Giamatti dancing away from a phone call in celebration of good news or Pike's eyes as the light of comprehension casts a shadow over what will now be the rest of her life. "Barney's Version" could use some editing and shaping, to be sure, but its core characters -- and core performances -- are sharp and clear even against its fuzzy, unfocused plot.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.