The dizzying comic energy and intellectual vigor of Mordecai Richler’s 1997 satire have largely been drained from director Richard J. Lewis’ agreeable but inevitably lesser version of “Barney’s Version.” Absent the novel’s wildly entertaining digressions and chronological acrobatics, the strange, decades-spanning tale of Barney Panofsky — thrice-married Montreal Jew, hack TV producer and suspected killer — emerges onscreen as a middle-tier marriage drama distinguished by an excellent Paul Giamatti in a familiar curmudgeon role. Acquired by Sony Classics before its Venice and Toronto bows, the Canadian-Italian production faces an uphill battle connecting with smart, literate audiences.
Richler’s tome takes the form of Barney’s memoir (written in response to a nemesis’ slanderous allegations), allowing the cantankerous 67-year-old to expound at length on everything from his days as a young bohemian in Paris to his later years spent in his native Montreal. Decidedly un-PC, full of blistering observations and hilarious vignettes, Barney is a classic Jewish pessimist, possessed of a withering intellect (compromised but not dulled by his increasing forgetfulness), an opportunistic worldview and a cynical appreciation of human pettiness — though he’s not beyond the reach of love or kindness, both exemplified by his beloved third wife, Miriam.
Barely scratching the surface of this formidably dense text, Michael Konyves’ adaptation is overwhelmed by the challenge of squeezing some 40 years into a 132-minute narrative and, more crucially, capturing Barney’s voice. Temporal scope and authorial tone are always hard to nail onscreen, and given that Barney is a man of letters, defined more than anything by his way with language, something is irretrievably lost in the transition from literary first person to cinematic third person.
In one of the script’s many liberties, the book that stings Barney (Giamatti) into self-defense is written not by an embittered acquaintance, but by the detective (Mark Addy) who years ago investigated the disappearance of Barney’s best friend, Boogie (a fine Scott Speedman). Implicitly promising “Barney’s version” of what really happened, the film flashes back to 1974 Rome (changed from Paris, likely due to the picture’s Italian funding), where Barney, Boogie and other members of their boho circle frequent outdoor cafes and read each other’s unfinished manuscripts amid a haze of cigar smoke and promiscuity.
Barney’s first marriage, to crazy redheaded shiksa Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), ends almost before it’s begun. Shortly thereafter, Barney returns to Montreal and does his father (Dustin Hoffman) proud by proposing to a wealthy Jewish-American princess (Minnie Driver, gamely obnoxious). But their marriage is also destined to be short-lived, as Barney flees his own wedding night to pursue the heart-stoppingly beautiful Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
Barney aggressively courts Miriam from afar while the second Mrs. Panofsky descends into further depths of shrill Jewish caricature, leading to the pivotal moment of betrayal that results in Boogie’s accidental death. With a smoking gun but no corpse to implicate him, Barney gets a divorce and weds Miriam, who brings out a long-buried generosity and contentment in Barney over their years of marital bliss — that is, until Miriam, having sidelined her radio career to raise their two kids, goes back to work with a handsome colleague (Bruce Greenwood).
Directed with grace and efficiency by Canadian helmer Lewis (“CSI”), “Barney’s Version” is amusing, sparklingly acted and clearly a few IQ points above the norm. What it lacks is the sense of purpose and control that signify a work conceived in its natural medium. What felt on the page like the product of a bristling, combative consciousness plays here like a zany series of midlife crises, and the story’s dark undertow has been toned down to a reassuring shade of beige.
Still, if his Barney Panofsky doesn’t achieve the stature of the novel’s, Giamatti proves characteristically excellent company. No stranger to playing nebbishy malcontents, the thesp again excels at being likably unlikable, embracing Barney’s vices — selfishness, insecurity, a weakness for lust, booze and hockey — but also his surprising moments of warmth. It’s a marvelously elastic performance, and Giamatti ages believably over time (aided by varying degrees of baldness and mottled skin).
The same can’t be said for Pike, whose porcelain elegance doesn’t artificially age well; still, she’s lovely enough to warrant Barney’s obsessive pursuit, ably conveying Miriam’s infinite desirability in an underwritten part. Hoffman is charming as the elder Panofsky, a boisterous presence who embarrasses himself at every social occasion but retains a core of human decency that, in his movingly played scenes with Giamatti, feels believably passed down from one generation to the next.
D.p. Guy Dufaux’s lustrous images have a vibrant sense of color and texture, particularly in beautifully lit interiors, and Rome and Montreal locations are well utilized. While Canuck directors including Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg are listed in the cast, only Denys Arcand seems to appear onscreen for more than a few seconds.