Alternate titles for Richard J. Lewis' film Barney's Version could have easily been One Life Furnished in Early Scumbaggery or Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Douche.
Which isn't what should dissuade you from seeing it. The complex portrait of a perplexing jerk is the most enticing thing about this overlong movie. Paul Giametti gives a remarkable performance as Barney Panofsky, a lifelong gadabout who doesn't make as many mistakes as most of the people around him think, but the ones he does make tend to have tremendous repercussions, perhaps because of the weight of his overblown reputation for dickery. It's a performance that is admirably nonjudgmental and astonishingly human, even though the core material does its level best to make sure you really don't understand this guy at all.
Barney's Version is, essentially, one man's looking back over his three marriages and his ongoing friendships. Barney's journey through time is set off by the publication of a true crime book about one of the worst moments in his life, though the precise nature of that alleged crime is something we don't quite get until the exact middle of the movie. It's one of the many gaffs in the structural integrity of Michael Konyves's script, which was adapted from a novel by the prolific author Mordecai Richler. For the madeleine that inspires this nostalgic reverie, it bears very little weight on the rest of the plot and really does nothing to invigorate the film's resolution. I believe the intention is to suggest that the doubts about the crime are just one of the many things that people around Barney have wrong about him, and by letting his own memory of events be our "in," we are getting his side of the story. And, of course, there is the irony that by the time the truth will out, memory is no longer a trustworthy commodity. Even so, I think that's more me adding meaning than Barney's Version giving it to me.
The movie instead focuses on those three marriages, from his short-lived union with his cheating first wife (Twilight's Rachelle Lefevre) to his ill-conceived second marriage to his bossy second one (Minnie Driver). Barney actually meets his third wife at the wedding reception for nuptials #2. Realizing that Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike, An Education, Made in Dagenham), a gal that likes the smell of his cigars and can fake being interested in hockey, just may be the love of his life, Barney leaves his own wedding to chase her. Interestingly, despite his pursuit of her throughout his union with the second Mrs. P, they never sleep together, fidelity is too important to Miriam to engage in adultery. No surprise, then, that Barney's jealousy and extramarital activities will eventually bring them grief.
There is a lot going on in Barney's Version. Amidst all the ups and downs of love, there is also his career as a television producer, pumping out a long-running but terrible show about a Royal Canadian Mountie; Barney's company is called Totally Useless Productions, he makes no pretense of quality. There is an undeveloped distinction there, as he is otherwise surrounded by talented people. His best friend Boogie (former Felicity heartthrob Scott Speedman, who proves he could stand in for Bradley Cooper any day of the week) is a brilliant novelist who squanders his gifts, and another friend is also a world-famous artist. Barney is caught between his new life in the upper classes and his origins in the working class, having grown up as a the son of a police patrolman. Dustin Hoffman plays Izzy Panofsky, giving a delightful performance as a down-to-earth, slightly vulgar man of the world. He and Giametti form an incredible pair, managing to create one of the movie's genuine relationships. There is real warmth between the duo, just as there is between Giametti and Pike. The actors in both relationships have an honest rapport, one that suggests the comfort of authentic bonding. For as selfish as he is, Barney displays real affection for both his father and his last wife, and in the case of the latter, reveals a romantic streak that far outstrips hers.
No, there's no shortage of good material in Barney's Version. On the contrary, there is too much of it. Lewis and Konyves don't seem to know how to contain a novel that is more than four-hundred pages long in one film, and both needed a good editor to focus their work. I think a judiciously applied red pencil in the scripting stage could have been particularly effective. There doesn't seem to be any guiding factor in terms of deciding what events need to be given primacy, or how to quickly get to the heart of why those events are important. There's too much equality here, and so the whole film walks a straight emotional line. By the time Barney's Version crests two hours, it's hard to remain patient with its many inclusions.
Barney's Version is solid work. It looks good, and the performances are noteworthy, but it just fails at being interesting. There's a point in the middle of the movie, at Barney's wedding reception, when his father is interrupted telling the Rabbi's wife a dirty story from his days on the force. Though that sounds like its own joke right there, the punchline is that, of course, the elder Panofsky has no idea that his anecdote was considered scandalous. He says he's glad that the other guests aren't as snooty as he expected them to be. Barney's Version has the opposite problem, it's not as red-blooded as it fancies itself. Rather, it's a story crafted by folks who are probably the smartest guys in the room, and they can't see past their own intelligence to realize they are doing it wrong.