Barney’s Version

In this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s final novel, Paul Giamatti stars as the bumbling schmuck of the title, Barney Panofsky, a 60-something Canadian TV producer and hockey nut. (He’s also a narcissistic douchebag who ruins almost every relationship he’s lucky enough to briefly have, but once you accept that he is who he is and he’s not going to change, he (and the film) becomes hilarious instead of annoying.) Much of Barney’s life story is told in flashback: we see his first promiscuous dalliances with love in ’70s Italy, and his brief first marriage there. At his second wedding a short while later (to Minnie Driver, called simply “The Second Mrs. P” in the credits), he meets—and instantly falls for—Miriam (a brilliant Rosamund Pike), the woman who would become his third wife. He calls her incessantly, asking her out to lunch every three months like a deranged stalker. He’s so nervous when he finally gets to see her that he writes out a list of talking points—memos to himself in case the conversation becomes stilted (“All the President’s Men” and “Herzog” among them), which, Barney being the bundle of jangled nerves he is, it does.

Throughout the long, winding narrative, Barney seeks romantic advice from his father—Dustin Hoffman, at the top of his game and wringing a lot out of what is arguably an underwritten character—and is accused of the murder of his best friend. The film is directed in a steady (if occasionally flat) manner by Richard J. Lewis, and photographed very nicely by Guy Dufaux: luscious Kodachromatic tones, all oranges and cream colours, are in place to evoke the ’70s, while the chilly air of modern-day Québec is coated in a cool blue. (Pleasantly, one contemporary scene briefly echoes Manhattan’s most famous shot.) Pasquale Catalano’s score is utilitarian but graceful where it needs to be, but the music choices leave something to be desired: the obvious, blunt use of “Taking Care of Business” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” is almost made up for with a couple of Leonard Cohen tracks (“Dance Me to the End of Love” and “I’m Your Man”). In addition, Nina Simone’s beautiful rendition of “Turn Me On,” even if it is lazily employed in a montage, and Dusty Springfield’s “I Don’t Wanna Hear it Anymore”—used over the end titles—are both great tunes.

Cameos from David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan reward the attentive cinephilic viewer, while supporting roles are well filled by Bruce Greenwood and Scott Speedman. (The wonderful Saul Rubinek also has a small part as Barney’s first father-in-law.) The film is long, but necessarily so given the rambling nature of Richler’s source material—how else can you tell Barney’s version of his story, with all its ups and downs, its many chapters and digressions, not to mention its three acts/wives? Barney’s slide into dementia praecox in the final portion of the film is incredibly moving—even as the memory loss that accompanies the disease’s onset is clumsily handled and milked for maximum sentimentality. Giamatti was rightly Oscar-nominated for this performance, and the film ends up being considerably funnier and more poignant than its marketing had let on.

Barney’s Version is in cinemas now.