By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
How bad a husband is Barney? Let’s put it this way: he falls for another woman at his own wedding. Talk about not taking your vows seriously.
So a boy scout Barney is not. Nor is he a hero. What he is is a dyspeptic, insecure, selfish, impulsive, foul-mouthed, self-destructive shlockmeister.
Whether we actually like Barney is beside the point. Occasionally he offends us, sometimes he engages our sympathy, other times he merely makes us curious about his actions and his motives. And he makes us see parts of ourselves in him whether we want to or not.
Giamatti (at left in photo) stars as curmudgeonly Montreal television producer Barney Panofsky, a boozy womanizer who runs a company called Totally Unnecessary Productions and who has been accused of murder by an obsessive policeman (Mark Addy) who has written a book about him.
But this murder mystery takes a back seat to the title character’s personal history. As one among many subplots, it presents itself as a version of the truth that may or may not be merely a self-serving recollection of an unreliable narrator.
So flashbacks take us back and then through four decades of Barney’s life and we get to know his three wives (Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamund Pike); his widowed, advice-dispensing ex-cop dad (Dustin Hoffman, at right in photo); his competition (Bruce Greenwood) for his third wife, the love of his life; and the drug-addicted best friend he is accused of having killed (Scott Speedman).
Television director Richard J. Lewis, making his feature debut, gets an uneven mixture of performances, some of them overly broad (Hoffman, Driver, Lefevre), others subtle and sweet (Pike, Greenwood, Speedman).
But Giammati steadies the boat. This is his movie all the way, and he is up to the task.
The screenplay by Michael Konyves is based on the 1997 novel by late Canadian author Mordecai Richler, the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), the memorable 1974 movie version of which starred a very young Richard Dreyfuss.
But the script suffers from a shapelessness born of cramming the many events of a sprawling literary work into a two-hour movie.
Still, the film has energy to spare, and the cast is never less than watchable, with a lead actor who is a lot more than that.
Giamatti has given us dozens of smart, skilled performances, with his starring work in Sideways, American Splendor, and John Adams just as strong as his deserved Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Cinderella Man.
His Barney is not quite at that level of vividness and authenticity, but it’s close. And he keeps it nuanced and real, even when the movie around him becomes unwieldy.
The least that we walk away with, thanks to Giamatti, is the experience of having seen A Life Lived, with his focal character driving away all his loved ones but not us.
So we’ll recall 2½ stars out of 4 for the untidy and overstuffed but undeniably entertaining retrospective seriocomedy, Barney’s Version. If his namesake purple dinosaur was a character grownups loved to hate, this Barney — at last in Paul Giamatti’s version — is one that they, like his three wives, will hate to love.