Barney's Version is a movie that spends a good chunk of its running time getting everything just right, and then fumbles through an ending that does everything absolutely wrong. The picture is downright schizophrenic--and that's a shame, because in those early passages, it appears to be doing something genuinely unique and daring, forging a tone that is odd but engaging, quiet yet epic, and doing so with tremendous confidence and chutzpah. And then it all goes right down the toilet.
This is in spite of the best efforts of Paul Giamatti, who has one of those actor's showcase roles here--he gets to age about 30 years and pretty much play the full range of emotions, from rage to desperation to heartbreak and all points in between. His character, Barney Panofsky, is a crass Canadian TV producer with a trail of failed marriages behind him; the film is something of a Portrait of a Schlub in the Philip Roth vein.
There is crazy Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), who he marries because she's pregnant--with a friend's baby, it turns out. There is "the second Mrs. Panovsky" (Minne Driver), a perfectly lovely (if somewhat verbose) spouse who simply has the misfortune to marry him on the day he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who he immediately decides is the love of his life. Bummer when you meet the woman you're supposed to marry at your wedding to another woman.
Barney's tale is told from a present-day wraparound story, which tosses in clues and red herrings, leaving us to surmise and connect dots on our own. Some of this works; some (like the true crime story) are well-prepared but ultimately undercooked. But even when director Richard J. Lewis is working up ultimately aimless elements, we're drawn in to the film and its odd, sketch-revue quality. He's way out in the woods here, but even when the picture is floundering, it's never boring; the wild tonal shifts are gingerly navigated, and the performances are, for the most part, terrific.
First of all, I hope whoever thought to cast Dustin Hoffman as Giamatti's father got a nice bonus--it's spot-on casting, and their scenes together have a wonderful low-comedy vibe (until the end, where their final interactions have a lovely, low-key perfection). Driver is broad and crass but undeniably funny, and occasionally heartbreaking. Scott Speedman, as Barney's fuck-up best friend, is the right mix of oily charm and sheer exploitation. Pike, on the other hand, is too flat as Miriam; we don't believe he'd go to the lengths he does to be with her. Not that Giamatti doesn't put his all into convincing us; even when the film stalls, the force of his performance propels the narrative.
Towards the end of the second act, Michael Konyves's screenplay (taken from the novel by Mordecai Richler) begins to fall into some predictable patterns, in sharp contrast to the anything-goes spirit of what has come before. And then it starts to unravel--the loose ends, the underdeveloped subplots, and finally (and most fatally) the TV-movie sentimentality. It's somewhat dispiriting to watch a film with so much giggly subversion in its early scenes get so cloyingly saccharine and easy (and slow, god, mercilessly slow) at the end.
Ultimately, Barney's Version is a mess. The performances are commendable, and the look and style are right on-target. But it falls right off the cliff. I genuinely admired the movie it started out as--so much, in fact, that I'm a little startled by the unfortunate movie it became.