Movies: Barney's Version ***
(15A, general release)
Mordecai Richler, who died in 2001, is a very big cheese in Canada. A salty and outspoken Montreal-Jewish novelist who's often compared to Saul Bellow, Richler was the dominant force in Canadian literature for decades, and Barney's Version is faithfully based on on his last novel. Perhaps too faithfully, in fact, because it fails as a film by being excessively reverential to the original text.
In fairness, though, adapting Richler's hectic, angry, boozy novel was always going to be an uphill battle, and while Barney's Version doesn't ultimately add up as a drama, it's full of enjoyable moments.
Paul Giamatti is Barney Parnofsky, a foul-mouthed Montreal-Jewish TV producer who drinks too much and seems to exist in a state of semi-permanent rage. In a series of flashbacks, we find out why.
Barney travelled around Europe in his youth and unwisely entered into marriage with a beautiful but volatile woman who subsequently killed herself.
When he returns to Montreal, Barney settles down and starts dating a nice, rich Jewish girl (Minnie Driver). But on their wedding day Barney is smitten by a beautiful New Yorker called Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he decides then and there he must have. She seems hopelessly out of his league, but he's extremely determined. And when he woos Miriam for months on end, she eventually relents. He divorces his second wife, and he and Miriam marry, but Barney remains unpredictable and volatile.
In a subplot, Barney has an argument with his drug-addicted best friend, Boogie, that eventually leads to tragedy and a murder investigation.
Director Richard J Lewis fails to weave this other story into what is essentially a romantic saga, and loose ends are resolved in a rushed coda. But when everyone stops worrying about Richler's text for a minute, moments of comic brilliance emerge. Especially whenever Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman are together. Hoffman does a wonderful job playing Barney's father. Giamatti gets Barney absolutely right: he's a cruel, intemperate, but strangely loveable and hugely entertaining neurotic.
A supporting cast of Canadian acting royalty includes Bruce Greenwood and Saul Rubinek, and there are cameos from the likes of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. And while Barney's Version may not be greater than the sum of its parts, it's a very entertaining little film.
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