Venice (In Competition) – The trailer might have pitched it as a zany rom-com but this Paul Giamatti-starring take on the 1997 novel by Mordecai Richler proves more of an eclectic affair, encompassing comedy, tragedy, a murder mystery and, as Paul Martin discovers, lashings of soap opera melodramatics.
There is something endearing about Paul Giamatti. It's not just that he's a wonderful screen actor, as ably demonstrated in the likes of American Splendor and Sideways, it's just as much the sheer cuddly physicality of the man - for once that C-word not being deployed as a euphemism for chubby, but rather to denote a genuinely teddy-bearish quality. And how splendidly Giamatti utilises that somatic charisma in his performances. When he plays sad, there are no showboating histrionics. He instead somehow assumes the form of a slowly deflating tyre. Similar story when he plays happy, any overkill of sunshine being cutely supplanted by an excited raccoon baring its teeth. His is an endlessly likeable presence, as demonstrated by the fact no-one gets on his case for appearing in such cataclysmic dreck as Shoot 'Em Up.
This deep well of goodwill towards Giamatti is unlikely to be diminished by Barney's Version. Quite the opposite in fact; the American actor's portrayal of the movie's title figure, Barney Panofsky, over a 36-year period in his life seeing him give absolutely everything for the cause, in addition to gamely allowing his scalp to be used as grazing ground for several furry mammals of varying sizes. That goodwill is unlikely to extend very far in the direction of the film itself though, as a mostly engaging first half gives way to a wearying second hour slog.
We first catch up with the mischievous Mr. P in his native Montreal, when he is already well into his 60s, all saggy neck and ruddy face. He is the moneyed head of Totally Unnecessary Productions, a company responsible for abysmal but epically long-running series, O'Malley of the North, a show revolving round a mountie in which Due South star Paul Gross is the lead and two of the directors are played by Canadian filmmakers Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. Hard-drinking cigar appreciator Barney still carries a colossal torch for his ex-wife, Miriam (a role filled, when the character is eventually glimpsed, by Rosamund Pike), even indulging in late-night phonecalls designed to infuriate her current husband, Blair (again unseen at this juncture, but latterly played by Bruce Greenwood). In addition to this unyielding amatory woe, Barney has another black cloud lingering over him, in the substantial shape of former detective, Sean O'Hearne (Mark Addy, again playing an obnoxious cop, following his similar turn in It's a Wonderful Afterlife), who has just published a book pegging the former as murderer of his pal, 'Boogie' Moscovitch (Scott Speedman).
From here the T. Rex riff kicks in and the movie reels back in time, to the sweaty hedonism of Rome in 1974, where Barney and Boogie live the bohemian dream with their pals, Leo and Cedric. Time has just been called on Barney's party however, as an unplanned pregnancy leads him to wed the volatile Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a young woman whose unhappy history is only exposed after her sudden death. Incidentally, if Lefevre truly was bounced out of Eclipse over a scheduling conflict with Barney's Version then she would seem to have every right to feel hard done by, as she is over and out here within the space of about ten minutes. It's back to Canada and straight back into the marital bed for Barney as he hooks up with an unnamed, ghastly, grasping second spouse (Minnie Driver, doing her best with what is not so much a character as a Jewish-American princess joke from the '70s). But at his own wedding he finds himself instantly smitten by blue-frocked guest Miriam, and the quest is soon on to woo her, with the death of Boogie briefly distracting from this.
It that all sounds rather on the busy side then that is because it is. Richard J. Lewis might be making his feature directing debut here, but he is a small screen veteran and Barney's Version often feels more like you are watching a TV series box-set in one sitting than it does a movie, as Lewis attempts to wrangle the late Mordecai Richler's novel into cinematic form. There are inevitably going to be narrative casualties when there is so much material to cram in, and the mystery of what really happened to Boogie bites the dust as conclusively as the character himself. After the midway point has been passed, this story thread is left to dangle till the final few minutes, with the director instead electing to place all his eggs in the Barney and Miriam romance basket. This decision consequently means that the second half of the movie is insufferably heavy on such formulaic melodrama staples as drunkenness, jealousy and infidelity, as the slow decline of the duo's love affair is charted, minus any of the wit of the earlier segments.
Paramount amongst the virtues of those scenes is Dustin Hoffman, who is far funnier as Giamatti's gaffe-prone father than he was as Ben Stiller's in Meet the Fockers. But while Hoffman's Izzy might make the worldly observation to his son that marriage isn't all “biscuits and blowjobs”, this need not mean that filmic matrimony be as much of a joyless trudge as it is for the final hour of Barney's Version.
Rating on a scale of 5 purple dinosaurs: 2.5
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Richard J. Lewis
Screenplay by: Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Modecai Richler
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver
Running Time: 132 minutes