For the “Barney’s Version” campaign, publicists have been sending out paperbacks of the Mordecai Richler novel from which the movie derives. Nice gesture, but it seems like an act of contrition: Sorry about that; here’s what you missed. Yes, yes, movies must be movies and books are books; it’s not a contest. But of course it is.
The essentials of Barney Panofsky are these. He’s in the autumn of his life, a wearied second-rate Montreal TV producer reflecting on several fleeting decades worth of self-absorption. He overdrinks. His mind is going. He once fell in love at first sight, on his second wedding day, with a woman who later became his third former wife. He may have murdered his druggie literary genius friend—even Barney never has been sure what happened there. Finally, and of course, you’ve gotta love him, the big lumpy soulful obstreperous lug. He is, after all, played by Paul Giamatti.
Pre-existing enthusiasts of Richler’s bristly and sardonic novel probably will know better than to have high hopes for anything, least of all a movie version of the “Version.” So who is this film really for? It’s as if some self-congratulating studio suit once gave a note that “Sideways” had really been on to something, Giamatti-as-schlubby-arch-misanthrope-wise, but had seemed after all too slight, and the actor’s reliably disbursing fans deserved a vehicle of more novelistic breadth. Not an altogether bad theory, and Richler’s book does seem like just the project: Giamatti as neurotic sad-sack rapscallion in complaining decline is a no-brainer, particularly because he’s too conscientious to phone such a bit in. If only the movie had commensurate discipline.
Richler’s prose is propulsive, but the forward trudge of the film seems perfunctory. It’s easier to commend than to enjoy, and hard not to blame on screenwriter Michael Konyves and director Richard J. Lewis both having come up through episodic television. Instead of lasting, literary richness, the feelings on offer here have the jaggedness of cut corners. The idea was that Barney’s version of anything should be at once unreliable and empathetic. The adapters’ task, therefore, was to balance the appalling with the appealing, to flatter us for having enough cultivation to understand that a man of retirement age shouldn’t be drunk-dialing his ex, say, while also enlisting us to co-conspire with him in doing it. The novel is pitched as a confessional memoir, in the first person, with occasional fact-checking footnotes. But Konyves and Lewis stay out of their man’s head, probably figuring it’ll be subjective enough just to have him hogging all the attention in nearly every scene. And maybe it would have been enough, had those scenes been more discerningly controlled.
We do see Barney romping around Rome in the ’70s with his bohemian pals, including Rachelle Lefevre as Clara, his first wife, and especially Scott Speedman as Boogie, the aforementioned now-dead genius. We see Barney come home to take up with “the second Mrs. P,” a Jewish Canadian princess played by Minnie Driver in amusing caricature. (Here the strategy for transcending a stereotype apparently is to drag it on for so long that at least some humanity will become statistically inevitable.)
And of course we meet Miriam, the love of Barney’s life, played by Rosamund Pike in a halo of fortitude and intelligence. Her appeal is immediate and utterly convincing; her consent to his courtship, less so. All the while, as his shabby life goes on, we see Barney soak up warm waves of (sometimes enabling) support from his father, Izzy, a retired cop played with welcome restraint by Dustin Hoffman.
Eventually we get the sense that Konyves and Lewis’ whole strategy consists of clever casting and swathing their movie in some idea of ambient Jewish Montreal cool. (At first it seems great that Leonard Cohen is in long supply, but then it feels like lazy shorthand.) For Richler, Canada was a character. For Lewis, it’s a reason to include cameos for fellow directors of Canadian extraction.
Giamatti keeps it all together, of course, but in just such a droll and wistful way as to remind us that the proper version of “Barney’s Version” will always be the book.