Nobody plays irascible, self-sabotaging schlubs better than Paul Giamatti.
Which makes him ideal casting for Barney Panofsky, a thrice-married, disaster-prone Canadian TV producer.
“This,” Barney tells us at the outset, “is the true story of my wasted life” – but as the title hints, just how true it all is remains debatable. What it undoubtedly is, though, is funny, engaging and moving.
Adapted from the last novel of Canadian writer Mordecai Richler (who died in 2001), the film spans four decades of Barney’s life. In ’60s Rome he meets and marries free spirit Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), only to find she’ll bed any guy who makes eye contact.
Then there’s the spoilt Jewish princess introduced as “the second Mrs P” (Minnie Driver), who prescribes a hygiene routine before she’ll go down on him. Third and last, the true love of his life – Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he meets and pursues on his second wedding day.
Richard J. Lewis (1994’s Whale Music) does a shrewd job of pacing the movie so that it never outstays its welcome. But this is one to see for the acting. Giamatti is perfect, his air of put-upon resentment occasionally lightening into a wary grin.
As his randy ex-cop of a dad, Dustin Hoffman is the best he’s been in ages. But Rosamund Pike is the revelation, portraying a woman so warm, intelligent and sexy that Barney’s pursuit of her makes every kind of sense.
The film’s weakness – maybe the result of boiling down a complex novel – is that secondary characters like Barney’s friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), are never fully established. But it’s a minor fault in a rich, relishable treat of a movie.
The life of a guy who constantly screws up could be a downer. But Barney’s Version is a heart-toasting pleasure thanks not least to a trio of engrossing performances.