Director: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman
Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version is the kind of novel that is difficult to adapt becasue it explores such a great span of time and such a wealth of relationships. Inevitably, when a book like this gets adapted, it ends up feeling more like a survey course - you get the whole picture in terms of the facts, but you have to sacrifice the smaller details, the little bits of narrative texture that make a work poignant, resonant and engaging. The film adaptation of Barney's Version doesn't escape this trap, but it manages nevertheless to be a very enjoyable and engaging film.
The story centres on Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a thrice married television producer who, at the end of his life, is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's and spends most of his time trying to harass his last wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), into reconciling with him. Though most of the film concerns his later life it frequently flashes back to his past in order to explore how he got to be the lonely misanthrope that he's become. The earliest flashbacks take place in Rome, where Barney marries his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), whom he is shocked to learn is actually Jewish and even more shocked to learn was carrying someone else's baby. Shortly after the stillbirth of the baby, Clara committs suicide, an act which will haunt Barney for the rest of his life.
Back in Canada, after having established himself as a TV producer, Barney marries his second wife, the never named Second Mrs. Panofsky (Minnie Driver), who is shallow and intellectually uncurious but also rich. Unfortunately, at their wedding reception Barney meets Miriam and is instantly smitten. Being a sane person, Miriam isn't really open to his advances and it isn't until after he and his second wife have split up - which happens after he finds her in bed with his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), who mysteriously disappears that same day - that they finally get together. Although very happy together, the two eventually split up, though Barney's descent as his illness takes hold brings them closer once again.
Through it all Giamatti portrays Barney not just as a character, but as a presence. The character is, by design, a bit larger than life and Giamatti captures that in every respect, but he's also able to bring Barney back down to earth when it's necessary. His relationships, particularly with his father (Dustin Hoffman), Miriam, and Boogie, ring true. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Speedman as the heroin addicted Boogie, a writer who allows his addictions to eat away at his talent. Speedman's role is relatively small, which is a shame because he absolutely owns every scene that he's in. It's also a shame because Boogie's disappearance - which the police consider a murder and believe Barney committed - is a pretty big plot point and yet, at the same time, it has relatively little impact on the film as a whole because so little time is actually spent on it.
That's really the problem with Barney's Version, the thing that keeps it a good comedy/drama, rather than a great one: it has too much story to tell and too little time to tell it. It condenses the novel quite a bit (excluding, for example, the fact that Barney actually goes on trial for murder), but there's still just way too much story to tell to truly do it justice. Barney's Version manages to be a good movie regardless, just not as good as the potential of its parts.