That rumpled grumpus Paul Giamatti seizes the title role in Barney's Version, summoning irresistibility and irritability to create a character as endearing as he is galling. As he demonstrated in American Splendor and Sideways, Giamatti has a particular gift for finding eloquence in the unspeakable.
Taken from the late Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel about a squirrely churl who inexplicably is catnip to women, the adaptation is a case of an unfilmable book with enough greatness in it to make a good movie. The performances of Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman (as Barney's pugnacious father), Scott Speedman (best friend), and Rosamund Pike (best wife) are appealing and affecting.
The novel follows an unreliable narrator with a failing memory as he defends his besmirched reputation. The unwieldy movie is a picaresque tale about how this Anglophone from Montreal, a would-be artist, became a businessman, how he improbably wins the heart of a woman he does not deserve, and how he just as improbably loses her.
The film opens in present day with septuagenarian Barney, Oscar the Grouch in human form, making late-night spite calls to Blair, current partner of his beloved ex-wife, Miriam, the third Mrs. Panofsky. Though acquitted of murdering his best friend (Speedman, raffishly charming), Barney is guilty of most other charges.
In flashbacks we learn that in his youth Barney was a hunger artist in Rome, where he marries Clara (sarcastic Rachelle Lefevre), a painter who is with child. The Rome sequence that should establish both Barney's character and that of the 132-minute film goes by too fast to process.
Paradoxically, Richard J. Lewis' film is both hurried and dawdling. He does not take the time to frame Barney as so ill-used by his artist wife that he seesaws from Rome's bohemia to Montreal's bourgeoisie where he embraces a more conventional woman (shrill, princessy Minnie Driver as "the second Mrs. Panofsky") and lifestyle (selling Israel bonds).
Barney meets third wife Miriam (the stunning and supremely grounded Pike) at his second wedding, leaving the reception to propose that they elope.
The film's best stretch is devoted to Barney and Miriam's eventual marriage, blessed by mutual sympathy, prosperity, and children.
As Giamatti plays him, Barney is a reverse Midas: Everything he touches turns to lead. Can he salvage his marriage, his life? The performances are so good that the audience is invested in the answers.
Movie geek alert: Canadian filmmakers Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Ted Kotcheff each make a brief appearance - respectively as a maitre d', directors working for Barney, and a train conductor.