Paul Giamatti is a masterful actor, one who has made playing the lovable loser (as in “Sideways”) an art form.
He’s quite good in the drama “Barney’s Version” as a man with no redeeming characteristics. He’s selfish, rude, crude and cares more about being around booze than people.
But while Giamatti is typically stellar, the story lets him down. Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, Michael Konyves’ script doesn’t give us any reason to care about — much less like — Barney. We almost despise him.
The story follows the life of Barney Panofsky, a TV executive whose production company makes cheesy soap operas. He’s slimy right from the start.
We’re introduced to him just as he’s about to marry the beautiful hot mess Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who is pregnant. When that explodes into a bigger hot mess, Barney returns home to Montreal, where he’s introduced to a woman we will know only as “the Second Mrs. P.” (the stillluminous Minnie Driver — in top comedic form here, channeling her inner Barbra Streisand). She’s a spoiled Jewish socialite who talks incessantly.
Somehow, they fall in love and marry, much to the disapproval of the bride’s wealthy father, who senses that Barney is not committed to the relationship.
He has no idea. Because during his wedding, Barney meets the lovely Miriam (Rosamund Pike), and instantly falls in love with her.
Still in his wedding tuxedo, he follows Miriam to her departing train and confronts her. Hello! Red flag!
He nonetheless goes through the motions with the Second Mrs. P., but (surprise!) it doesn’t work out.
Barney then pursues Miriam full-on, and they eventually marry and have kids. And while it seemed that they were happy for a while, things slowly go awry.
At the middle of all this is a murder mystery involving Barney and his best friend.
But it seems likes a subplot, and one that doesn’t help us like him any more. It’s just hard to get invested in someone so seemingly, wholly foul. Thank goodness for Dustin Hoffman, who is a breath of fresh air as Barney’s father.
And, though Giamatti does his best with the role, he seems miscast. He’s supposed to be the sexy playboy, the alpha-male powertype. He weds beautiful women with charm that we never see, and despite his frumpy frame, they all fall for him.
Still, when the film turns tragic near its end, Giamatti somehow makes us pity him — a testament to his fine performance, and the saving grace of “Barney’s Version.”