“Barney’s Version” is a bloated, confused movie—first a black comedy, then a distended family drama and never fully committed to either possibility. Adapting Mordechai Richler’s 1997 novel, director Richard J. Lewis aims for a sweeping narrative encompassing three decades in one man’s troubled world. The outcome is epically uneven, filled with admirable performances and operatic momentum, but ultimately too engulfed in its elegant structure to give the characters room to breathe.
As the frumpy Barney Panofsky, Paul Giamatti settles into an unseemly role that fits his strengths, transcending limitations imposed on him by a troubled screenplay. The story begins in Barney’s later years as a Montreal-based television producer, when his past involvement in a missing person case comes back to haunt him with the publication of a retired detective’s accusatory tome. This leads to the first of several flashbacks, to 1970s-era Rome, where a youthful Barney falls into an ill-fated marriage with the energetic Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) that ends in suicide and adultery. Back in the States, Barney quickly lands his next wife—an affluent airhead played by Minnie Driver that he cares so little about that the movie never names her—before growing fixated on his next one, the fragile Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Their romantic entanglement finally brings Barney to a happier stage of his life, but like everything else in this busy production, the setting doesn’t last long.
The novelistic structure of “Barney’s Version” creates a fragmented experience, but individual moments hold strong. Barney’s decision to ditch Clara at their wedding party and chase down Miriam moments after meeting her speaks to his impulsive, self-involved nature, a trait that Giamatti knows how to embody better than most. Lewis places him a tradition alongside Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney’s smarmy father, a retired policeman and the only person willing to accept his son’s slippery romantic inclinations with a shrug.
However, the highbrow intentions of “Barney’s Version” suffer from a constant pile up of dead ends. After a trip to Barney’s vacation home with his druggie pal Boogie (Scott Speedman) ends with a mysterious disappearance, the plot strains under several ideas, shifting from a tale of romantic confusion to Jewish guilt and finally wistfulness as Barney grows old and senile. As if to embody his diminishing mental state, the movie ends with an unfocused final act that tries to drag the farcical nature of Barney’s behavior in a more tragic direction.
Although the flashback structure mucks up the capacity for “Barney’s Version” to gain momentum, Lewis accomplishes a rich immersion into Barney’s insular world of Jewish neuroses and familial dysfunction. Like the source material, the adaptation delves into details that make it culturally and historically astute. Unfortunately, these subtleties fail to overcome the clutter and the result holds together about as well as Barney’s love life.
criticWIRE grade: B-