Paul Giamatti is one of those actors whose presence in a movie generally validates it, and Barney’s Version is no exception. He manages to make a central character with few—if any—admirable traits not only bearable but downright compelling. And if this Barney strays from the way Mordecai Richler painted him in his first-person novel, he still justifies his existence in this entertaining film.
No one who is familiar with Richler’s writings—or the wonderful 1974 film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which starred Richard Dreyfuss—should be shocked to learn that the protagonist of this tall tale is a Canadian Jew. Barney Panofsky makes a living producing a pedestrian TV series, but his appetite for life away from work is enormous. In his early years he experiences La Vie Bohème in Rome, where he meets and marries his first wife (Rachelle Lefevre). Later on, back home in Montreal, he marries again, but not for—
—love; Minnie Driver plays the unfortunate second Mrs. Panofsky. Then Barney is smitten with the beautiful Miriam (Rosamund Pike), and determines to make her Wife Number Three—no matter what it takes.
Along the way we meet some of Barney’s friends and at least one of his enemies. The biggest treat is getting to know his father, a retired Montreal cop who is socially embarrassing but a mensch at heart. He is portrayed, with great gusto, by Dustin Hoffman, the second reason this movie is worth seeing. Hoffman seems to be having a great time playing this uninhibited character, and the feeling is infectious.
I wish Barney’s Version had a little more meat on its bones, as I suspect its source novel does. One can’t help but feel that some of its subplots and supporting characters have more to them than they do here, where they are dealt with in casual or hurried fashion. Yet the film remains enjoyable because the actors bring so much to Michael Konyves’s screenplay. Fortunately, director Richard J. Lewis, who has worked mostly in television, seems to understand that this endeavor is all about character and story, not stylistics.
Finally, there is a series of in-jokes for diehard film buffs: cameo appearances by some of Canada’s most notable directors, all of whom have worked for producer Robert Lantos in years past. David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan turn up as directors of Barney’s silly TV show. Ted Kotcheff (who made Duddy Kravitz) is a train conductor, and Denys Arcand is a suave maître d’ at a restaurant. A nice touch.