As far as cinematic schlubs are concerned, not many actors out there can play bitter more brilliantly than Academy Award-nominee Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man). Even those with the physical traits to be considered schlubby like Jon Lovitz, Danny DeVito, and Kevin James would have to dig pretty deep to give nuanced performances like the ones Giamatti delivers in 2003’s American Splendor as late comic book icon Harvey Pekar or in 2004’s road-trip wine adventure Sideways as a sourpuss writer.
Once again, Giamatti embraces his inner grump in Barney’s Version, a Canadian drama based on the 1997 fictional autobiography of the same name by Mordecai Richler. While the structure of the novel doesn’t figure into director Richard J. Lewis’ film adaptation (footnotes are used in the book to correct factual errors Barney writes due to Alzheimer’s disease), Barney’s Version is still a quasi-epic biopic centered on the paradoxical life of a man with nothing and everything to live for.
In the film, Giamatti portrays title character Barney Panofsky, a once-widowed, twice-divorced TV producer in Montreal whose entire existence has been an up-and-down battle between his heart and his head. Flashbacks mark moments that have impacted his life — from a drunken encounter with best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), which may have led to his disappearance, to his longtime pursuit of third wife Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom he meets during his second wedding reception.
Watching Barney search for happiness in the most graceless ways is uncomfortable at times, but his sincere personality peers through enough from behind his callous exterior to inspire sympathy for him without dismissing his countless flaws. There’s something uplifting about Barney’s stubbornness and refusal to conform; he stays the same as the world changes around him. It’s a life filled with disappointment, but one that’s still worth living even if it’s just for the little glimpses of a better one.
Dir. Richard J. Lewis; writ. Michael Konyves; feat. Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Hoffman (R)