Man meets woman; man marries woman; man ruins marriage and moves on to next woman; Barney has a selfish life cycle, which makes him hard to like. But there’s one thing in his favour: he’s played by the always likeable Paul Giamatti. It’s lucky then that film maker Richard J. Lewis is directing Barney’s Version (2010) of his muddled past. If not, you’d probably end up hating him by the end of the first act.
Spanning four decades and a whole lot of heartbreak, Barney’s Version is one of those films that loves its actors. Giamatti’s leading role won him a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy or Musical – strangely though, there’s not much comedy to be found here. Despite the wonky score and the dialogue’s occasional dark humour, this has as many big laughs as Blue Valentine (2010), and with a similar dose of pain. In truth, Barney’s Version is more a straight character drama, which gives Giamatti the chance to shuffle through the years with make-up and costume changes galore.
In 1960’s Rome, Barney Panofsky weds his pregnant fiancée Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), more concerned with drugs and his drunken friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) than whether he is in fact father to the child.
Years later in Montreal, Barney finds himself matched with “The 2nd Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver), who is in possession of both a Masters degree and extremely rich parents. Barney’s boisterous father Izzy (played by veteran actor Dustin Hoffman) likes both of these things – but not as much as he likes her breasts. No sooner than shacking up with spouse number two, Barney’s off to woo Miranda (Rosamund Pike), a New Yorker too smart to get caught up with the bearded “schlub”. That is, until they get married a few years later.
Along the way, Barney smokes, drinks, and gets accused of homicide; he’s also a TV executive at ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’, but doesn’t really care about his job. And yet even with his horrible ways, Giamatti’s understated performance makes this all work; he rarely shouts, but his presence screams out his prestigious talent.
Giamatti is supported by a great cast, from the amusingly goofy Minnie Driver to the fragile and frosty Pike. Ranging from vulnerable to angry, Barney’s women are each taken for granted in our protagonist’s unreliable memory, but each actress avoids being relegated to the sidelines.
However, at over two hours, Barney’s Version is a somewhat long-winded account of one man’s life. In addition, Michael Konyves’ screenplay is all too conventional in its episodic structure and fluctuating emotional tone. Without any peaks of laugh-out-loud hilarity, you end up counting the seconds until the next quiet, serious conversation. You may well be moved at points by Lewis’ film, but you’ll come out knowing exactly what you did when you went in: Paul Giamatti is a fantastic actor. He just doesn’t need all of the film’s 132 minute running time to prove it.