Rated R for language and some sexual content, 134 minutes
Giamatti's engaging performance highlights dramedy "Barney's Version"
Barney Panofsky hasn't had an easy life, nor is he an easy person to live with. The captivating, touching performance by Paul Giamatti in the title role is the highlight of the entertaining yet slightly overlong dramedy "Barney's Version," based on the 1997 best-selling novel by Mordecai Richler. Superbly-acted, it's a journey filled with moments of emotional depth and a decent, low-key film overlooked by the Oscars this year.
Barney's story is told over several decades and his experiences with his friends, three wives and his extended families. His first wife Carla Chambers (Rachelle Levefre) commits suicide after Barney leaves her due to her unfaithfulness. He and his second wife (Minnie Driver), a rich Jewish woman with a big family and even a bigger inheritance, loathe each other and her unfaithfulness with Barney's handsome but drug-addicted best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) causes that marriage to fall apart. At the reception of his second wedding, Barney finally meets his true love, Miram (Rosamund Pike), and while they spend many happy years together, his bad choices threaten to drive her away too, all the while receiving guidance from Barney's unconventional but loving father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman).
"Barney's Version" is a poignant, touching story of an incorrigible man who doesn't always make the best choices in life, even when he has it going pretty good. Directed by veteran TV and movie director Richard J. Lewis, the film energetically opens up Richler's novel with a memorable, tour-de-force performance by Giamatti who emotionally grounds the film and carries the film on his back as the man who's part grump, part lover and part mensch. The early part of Barney's story is a little choppy and uneven, but fortunately Lewis spends the most time with Barney's third wife, the sympathetic Miriam, in a warm performance by British character actress Pike.
Giamatti's tender performance underscores the fact he's one of Hollywood's hidden gems and an underrated actor; you sense what he's feeling just by the look on his face, a unique quality that many actors don't have. The performance, which won a Golden Globe earlier this year, was overlooked by the Oscars, and as good as Giamatti was, there were just too many outstanding male performances this past year.
Hoffman is also fun as Barney's father, and watch for Hoffman's real son Jake in a small role as Barney's son at an older age. Driver is fitfully annoying as his second wife, the pretty but chatty girl who can't seem to shut up. Speedman is adequate as Barney's junkie friend; a better actor with depth would've made a stronger impression, but he is blandly likable.
For what it is, "Barney's Version" goes on too long and there a couple of subplots from the novel that could've been trimmed here, but the last section is the most moving, when Barney starts to forget things. It could've ended up mauldin and sappy but Giamatti's poignant, understated scenes make it believable. The enjoyable "Barney's Version" is a treat to enjoy and a good late winter date movie.