REVIEW: Paul Giamatti Anchors a Sprawling Barney's Version

Movieline Score: 7

Though it's wrong to think that curmudgeons are more complex than shiny, happy people are, it's probably safe to assume they make more interesting movie characters -- as long as you don't have to live with them. In Barney's Version, Richard J. Lewis's adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel, Paul Giamatti plays the kind of guy most of us wouldn't want to live with, a grouchy two-bit television exec who's blown through several marriages and who doesn't seem to have much use for anyone. But the modest trick of the performance, and of the movie around it, is that a person who seems wholly unbearable at first ends up being someone we can almost care about. That's the power of art: What does it mean when you find yourself reaching out to a guy you can barely tolerate?

When we first meet Giamatti's character, Barney Panofsky, he's a grizzled old loner, prone to drinking and dialing -- specifically, he's been badgering the husband of one of his ex-wives, though we don't yet know the whole story behind that. The story flashes back to Barney's young adulthood in the early '70s, as a not-quite-carefree youth cavorting through Italy with his pals, the closest of whom is a spirited aspiring writer named Boogie (a devilishly appealing Scott Speedman). Barney's version of youthful fun isn't exactly breezy: He's already launched a reasonably successful business enterprise, exporting olive oil back home to Canada, and he suddenly finds himself married to a loopy, and somewhat troubled, free spirit named Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who is, he believes, carrying his child. The outcome of that whole trip is miserable for everyone, for a number of reasons. But even though Barney is outspoken, irascible and generally impossible, he's also capable of great tenderness. When tragedy strikes, he rallies in surprising ways: He may be a grouch, but he's not without compassion.

Well, more or less. After returning home to Canada, he takes a "suitably" Jewish wife (Minnie Driver), only to then meet the girl of his dreams -- at the wedding, no less. Her name is Miriam (Rosamund Pike), she's a class act and Barney chases after her impulsively, that day and for many days afterward, until, after a coincidence and yet another tragedy, he manages to win her over.

That may sound like enough living for three lifetimes, but it's barely the beginning of Barney's Version. This is a wry mini-epic, the sort of movie that grapples with big subjects -- issues of Jewish identity; the sliding scale of one man's morality; the devastating effects of losing friendship and love -- one sardonic joke at a time. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves face a tall order in adapting Richler, and they meet the challenge with uneven results. For surprisingly long stretches, Barney's Version moves along at a clip, keeping us wondering not just what's going to happen to Barney next, but how he'll greet whatever mishap or unexpected pleasure might befall him.

But Barney's Version also suffers from some paradoxical problems: It's both oddly undershaped and overworked. In some scenes, the actors seem to have been left adrift, trying to fill some amorphous, undefined emotional space. In other places, the picture feels heavily orchestrated, as if it wants to make sure we know how to feel. And certain characters are rendered in cartoonish proportions that are way too aggressive: Driver, as Barney's ill-chosen bride, is directed to play the Jewish-princess act to the hilt -- she swans about, airing her endless list of complaints and criticisms in a high-pitched nasal squawk. The character is whiny and spoiled all right, and her parents are snobs, but Lewis does Driver no favors by allowing her to belabor the point.

Most of the other performers fare better: Pike plays Miriam as a wellspring of level-headed benevolence, the kind of woman who's probably far better than Barney deserves. And Dustin Hoffman, appearing sporadically as Barney's rough-edged but warm-hearted ex-cop father, Izzy, is wonderful. In Izzy, you can see the origins of some of Barney's more endearing qualities -- chief among them his impatience with bullshit and pretense -- but there's also a gruff, grizzled sweetness about him.

You'd hardly call Barney sweet, though his sense of decency, when it kicks in, is considerable, and his protectiveness toward his father is deeply touching. The scenes between these two characters are the best in the movie: Hoffman and Giamatti seem wholly at ease with each other, together comprising one oddball miniature family.

But Barney's Version is too much of a sprawl to have much of a lasting emotional effect. Lewis does add some nice touches here and there: The picture features several cameos from Lewis' fellow Canadian directors, including a witty one from David Cronenberg and an elegant, rather touching one from Denys Arcand. (Atom Egoyan makes an appearance too.) And overall, Barney's Version is reasonably entertaining, and sometimes moving, while you're watching it. But its essence isn't easy to grasp -- there's something drifty and indistinct about the picture, and you're often not sure why you're supposed to be investing your time and interest in this guy.

Giamatti's Barney isn't exactly easy to read, which is probably the point. He aggravates everyone around him, and he exasperates us equally: He's rarely be satisfied with what he's got, though when he loses something (or someone) he values, he feels the sting. All that's left to say is, We told you so! Giamatti is perfect casting for a character like Barney -- maybe almost too perfect, with those worry lines etched into his forehead, those perpetually anxious eyes. His performance here is marked by lots of huffing and puffing (Barney has a deep fondness for stinky-looking cigars), accompanied by a great deal of caged-animal pacing.

But as he's done before in pictures like American Splendor, Giamatti deftly walks the line between being annoying and endearing. No wonder the women in Barney's life don't always know what to make of him: Is he the guy you can't stand to be around or the guy you can't live without? Barney can barely live with himself most of the time; his arrogance, his perpetual impatience with the human race, is the flipside of his self-loathing. Then again, it's also the thing that makes him most alive.

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