Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman star. (Takashi Seida / Sony Pictures…)
Novelist Mordecai Richler, a caustically brilliant observer of the human condition — especially when it was Jewish, Canadian or politically incorrect — was never one to spare himself or his loved ones. So I have to believe that somewhere in the great beyond, he is chuckling over a single malt and a Montecristo at the sublime, dark distraction of "Barney's Version," the screen adaptation of his final and most autobiographical work, starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman.
This is, as Richler offered by way of introduction, the story of Barney Panofsky's "wasted life" and the scandal that followed him to his grave. He's a man who succeeds easily at business and struggles at romance; an incorrigible mensch who is lovable in spite of himself; and maybe a murderer — on that count, not even Barney is sure.
The film stars Giamatti as Barney, an uncomfortable member of Montreal's tightly knit Jewish enclave — that is to say, an outsider among outsiders. Hoffman is his father, Izzy, a policeman even more irascible than his son, and Rosamund Pike is Miriam, Barney's great love, his third wife and third divorce and the mother of his children. Though other wives and friends will flow in and out of the nearly four decades of Barney's life covered by the film, these three characters are the foundation.
That Montreal writer Michael Konyves was able to successfully distill Richler's densely plotted, crackling prose into a screenplay at all is a triumph. As a fan of the book, frankly I didn't think it was possible. With the light touch director Richard J. Lewis brings and the terrifically textured work from Giamatti and Hoffman that should get one, if not both, Oscar consideration, you're in for a couple of hours in great company. (The film is here for a one-week Oscar qualifying run, then back in mid-January.)
What the filmmakers have done so artfully is strip the story down to the bare essentials of the most significant loves of Barney's life and how his behavior, both good and bad, never stops rippling across that universe. All of the dicey spots Barney finds himself in — and there are many — are where the complexity in this classic character study lies.
We start getting to know Barney as a young man already working on a potbelly, a cigar in his teeth, a drink in his hand. He's a small-time patron hustling around the edges of Rome's bohemian art scene supporting emerging talents — primarily his best friend Boogie ( Scott Speedman), a writer and abuser of substances and friendships; and Clara ( Rachelle Lefevre), a blond bombshell who becomes the first Mrs. Panofsky.
Tragedy strikes and Barney is back in Montreal making soap operas, wooing the woman who will become the 2nd Mrs. P ( Minnie Driver), a well-heeled Jewish princess who has more mouth than Barney can stand. Before they leave for their honeymoon, he meets wife No. 3. at the wedding. In Pike's sure hands, Miriam is beauty, sophistication and smarts, all in one package. Barney is so sure that she is "the one" that he leaves the wedding party — and the bride — to try to talk Miriam into having dinner with him.
Though the filmmakers, perhaps in deference to Richler's own searing self-deprecation, never profess to any larger meaning, "Barney's Version" is smart in what it has to say about the sticky wickets that even the best relationships can be. Giamatti powers through Barney's mess and morass with much passion and humor, using his pudgy imperfections in such an irresistible way that you believe in Barney's ability to charm the beauties and get away with murder.
Yes, we're back to that. The one thing you soon figure out is that Barney's life is about excess — and that means trouble. For that we can probably thank Izzy, Barney's dad, an ordinary beat cop who loves his son to excess too. His blind affection for his only son leads him to make questionable choices; you know things are probably not going to end well when Izzy's wedding gift to Barney is a pistol.
With Izzy, Hoffman creates one of the most memorable and lovable characters of his career — and considering the actor's thousand-pound vitae, that is saying a lot. Though Giamatti and Pike are great together as the smart sparring couple — and Pike is having a very good year already, currently as a trophy wife in "Made in Dagenham" — the movie is at its most moving when exploring the father-son relationship.
Perhaps because Lewis has gotten the majority of his directing experience on series TV — most notably as a longtime writer-director for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" — he lets his actors go long. Though it doesn't always work, the general volubility suits Barney. Director of photography Guy Dufaux ("The Barbarian Invasions") mirrors that approach, giving the visuals room to breathe as well.
Whatever the film's flaws, and like its protagonist, there are times when things get a bit out of control, watching Giamatti use Barney to wrestle with success, failure, friendship, love and increasingly with time is exhilarating. The rest of us should be so lucky.