‘Barney’s Version’: Portrait of a jerk

Though CNN's "Parker Spitzer" sets the modern standard for creepy man-woman chemistry, "Barney's Version" is a close second.

The movie pairs U.K. dish Rosamund Pike with hairy gnome Paul Giamatti, who in "Barney's Version" scales Pike's Peak (he does a nude dive on top of her) only AFTER he jettisons a willing female entourage that includes Minnie Driver and Rachelle Lefevre.

Is it his Axe body wash?

We can rule out personality.

The movie is adapted from a beloved Mordecai Richler novel, and shows the perils of separating an author's characters from his literary voice. Adorned by Richler's words, Barney is a comedy of human errors - the title hints at the wink of novelistic style that is missing from the movie. On screen, Barney's mostly a jerk, despite Giamatti's manic efforts.

"Version" starts with a thoroughly unconvincing '60s prologue that sketches Barney's bohemian youth in Europe, enjoying cigarettes, art, jazz and girls in Europe. It's mercifully brief, and he returns to his native Canada for a job in high-profit, lowbrow television.

It's a bourgeois job that seems to require the accessory of a bourgeois wife (Driver), a marriage that essentially ends on the day of the wedding, when Barney, drunk and already distracted by a hockey game, spies the beautiful Miriam (Pike) across the room.

He goes gaga, leaves his reception to follow her down the street, and pursues her ardently for months.

She is ultimately persuaded, but I was not. The look of amorous truelove amazement he displays upon seeing Miriam is the same one he displays when he first sees Driver's character (or her chest). And "love" does nothing to temper his narcissism. His powerful feelings trump all, and we're to believe that Miriam is content to be defined by them.

And so she is - the midsection of the film follows their happy run of domestic bliss, Barney's thriving television empire, the raising of their two children, enabled by Miriam's heroic patience and devotion.

Other relationships fray. Barney is a bully and a tyrant on set and at the office, and there is his deteriorating friendship with a novelist (Scott Speedman), who gradually loses his talent and initiative to drinking and drugs.

The movie has trouble keeping things tonally in line. Dustin Hoffman turns up as Barney's coarse father, a cop who's a link to Barney's blue-collar Jewish roots, which Hoffman takes as a cue to let his "Little Fockers" persona run wild.

"Version" gets a welcome dose of subtlety from Bruce Greenwood, who shows up late and is quietly hilarious as an unctuous radio programmer who wants an empty nest career for Miriam, among other things.

"Version" makes a late bid for bigger feelings, trading in some of the territory mapped far more effectively in Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," also shot in Richler's native Canada. There are reported cameos for Canuck directors David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, and Atom Egoyan. Too bad none was available to direct.

Barney's Version

Directed by Richard J. Lewis. With Scott Speedman, Paul Giamatti, Mark Addy, Rachelle Lefevre, Jake Hoffman, Saul Rubinek, Bruce Greenwood, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike. Distributed by Sony Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language and some sexual content).