Based on Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning comic novel—his last and, arguably, best—Barney’s Version is the warm, wise, and witty story of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a seemingly ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life. A candid confessional, told from Barney’s point of view, the film spans four decades and two continents, taking us through the different “acts” of his unusual history. There is his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a flame-haired, flagrantly unfaithful free sprit with whom Barney briefly lives la vie de Boheme in Rome. The “Second Mrs. P.,” (Minnie Driver), is a wealthy Jewish Princess who shops and talks incessantly, barely noticing that Barney is not listening. And it is at their lavish wedding that Barney meets, and starts pursuing, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), his third wife, the mother of his two children, and his true love. With his father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman) as his sidekick, Barney takes us through the many highs, and a few too many lows, of his long and colorful life. Not only does Barney turn out to be a true romantic, he is also capable of all kinds of sneaky acts of gallantry, generosity, and goodness when we—and he—least expect it.
The initial source of Barney’s attraction is obvious enough and is only affirmed by the melodious FM-radio timbre of Miriam’s voice. You might, however, be tempted to wonder what she sees in him. In addition to being freshly married, he is short, tubby, badly groomed and drunk, brandishing a stubbed-out Montecristo cigar along with his hackneyed pickup lines.
The answer to this riddle comes obliquely later that same evening, when Barney chases Miriam down aboard a train about to leave Montreal for New York, where she lives. In her hands is a paperback copy of Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” possession of which surely signals, at the very least, a high tolerance for vain, verbose and vulgar Jewish men.
Barney — the picaresque antihero of “Barney’s Version” — is, in more ways than one, a cousin of Bellow’s Moses Herzog. He is the last surviving fictional brainchild and alter ego of Mordecai Richler, a novelist who, like Bellow, was born in Quebec but who, unlike him, stayed there, turning Anglophone Jewish Montreal into a northern sister city of Augie March’s Chicago.
The volume that the future (and eventually former) Miriam Panofsky carries is one of many signs that the director, Richard J. Lewis, and the writer, Michael Konyves, of “Barney’s Version,” have done their homework. In winnowing Richler’s 1997 novel into a workable screen story they have preserved important details and added some new ones consistent with their version’s altered chronology. (Paris in the 1950s, when both Richler and the novel’s Barney sowed their oats and drank their wine, becomes Rome in the ’70s).
But the filmmakers have been, if anything, too dutiful, too careful, and the movie that results from their conscientious, devoted labor illustrates the terrible, paradoxical trap into which well-intentioned literary adaptations so often fall. Mr. Lewis (an executive producer and director for the television series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), Mr. Konyves and the producer, Robert Lantos, display admirable patriotism as well as devotion to their source material.
“Barney’s Version” is explicitly dedicated to Richler’s memory, and also, by implication, to some of the cultural touchstones of his native land. It pays tribute to the Montreal Canadiens and also to a handful of Northern cinematic titans who traipse across the set in obliging cameo. Yes, that was David Cronenberg playing the hack director of a soap opera about a Mountie named O’Malley. And if you are likely to crack up at the sight of Denys Arcand (“The Decline of the American Empire”) playing a headwaiter — I confess I did — then “Barney’s Version” will not be a total loss.
The cast is beyond reproach. Selecting Dustin Hoffman to play Mr. Giamatti’s father is a stroke of genius, since it throws into relief the blend of intense seriousness and wry self-mockery that they have in common as screen performers. Scott Speedman twitches persuasively as Boogie, Barney’s gifted, drug-addicted best friend, and Rachelle Lefevre has some seductive moments as Barney’s first wife, Clara, whom he marries and loses in Rome. Bruce Greenwood, foreshadowed early, arrives late as the canoe-paddling vegan radio producer whom Miriam will marry after leaving Barney. (This spoils nothing, by the way. Most of the story is told in flashback, so that the denouement of Barney’s story is fairly clear at the start.)
It all sounds like the stuff of a pretty good movie: a crowd of interesting characters; a plot involving adultery, divorce, a grab bag of vices and even the possibility of murder; art, sex, religion, hockey. But the film plays more or less like a recitation of that list.
A few extended scenes, in which Mr. Lewis stops fussing to put every detail in place and stands back to let Mr. Giamatti spar one on one with another actor, have a vivid, unpredictable rhythm. Unfortunately they serve only to highlight just how inert the rest of the movie is, as if it were not Barney’s version of the story at all, but rather the wedding planner’s.
In spite of Mr. Giamatti’s ferociously energetic performance “Barney’s Version” never figures out just who Barney is. In Richler’s pages he is above all a voice — profane, sophisticated, tender, mean and funny — and the filmmakers prove unable to compensate for its absence. But their failure is more than just technical; in attempting to honor the spirit of the book, they extinguish it. It is a wild, unruly novel of character, in which the character himself is at once incorrigible and irresistible. The film tames and sentimentalizes him, and in showing respect for Barney’s author turns his creation into something unforgivably respectable.