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Barney's Version

Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver in "Barney's Version"

Mining Richler

Barney's Version

It’s not something I would say very often, but this is one time when the Golden Globes, that most venal of all awards shows, got it right over the Oscars: by naming as Best Actor Paul Giamatti, who wasn’t even nominated by the Academy.

Immediate backtracking: The Globes have 10 acting nominees because they have a separate category for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy.” Giamatti really didn’t belong in that category because Barneys’s Version is hardly a comedy. And the competition was particularly feeble: Winning out over Johnny Depp in The Tourist is faint praise indeed.

But that doesn’t nullify that Giamatti gives one of the best performances of the year here, one that certainly belongs among the Oscar voter’s Hallowed Five. If only the film around him were up to his level.

Barney’s Version was adapted by the 1997 novel by Quebec’s Mordecai Richler, his last before his death in 2001. I haven’t read it, but it’s clear from watching the film (and borne out by reviewers who do know the book) that this is an instance of a script that labored to capture the surface of a novel without being able to capture its actual life. Granted that’s not always an easy thing to do, which is why we read books as well as watch movies. But the greatest accomplishment of this film, aside from containing a great performance by Giamatti, might be to drive viewers to pick up the book.

Barney Panofsky is, like all of Richler’s protagonists, a Jew living in Montreal. He has had a financially comfortable career producing a soap opera that he wouldn’t attempt to defend as anything other than crap. (His business is called Totally Unnecessary Productions, which may or may not have been intended as an acronym for an archaic term for sexual congress.) He has been lucky in love, though of course luck comes in two varieties, and it is these that the film visits, moving between Barney’s salad days in Rome in the 1970s though his remorseful final years.

As a leading man, Giamatti commands our attention because he is the complete antithesis of what we expect a leading man to be: balding, paunchy, short. Barney drinks too much, smokes even more, and values hockey over everything, including his family. But he is grateful for love, even if it takes him three attempts at marriage to get it right. (He meets his third and final wife at his second wedding, which suggests that Richler may have been a fan of the work of another Jewish writer, Neil Simon, author of The Heartbreak Kid.)

That Barney’s Version gives us little feeling for the conflicted identity politics of Quebec, or of Jewish life in Montreal, are the telltale signs that the film captures more of the Richler’s story than it does of Richler, who was passionate about both subjects. (As adaptations of his work go, it’s third behind The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Joshua Then and Now.) But it’s still worth seeing for Giamatti, and for the supporting cast he gets to work with: Rosamund Pike as his last wife, Minnie Driver as the one who doesn’t even get a name, and best of all Dustin Hoffman as his retired cop father.

Diehard fans of Canadian cinema can keep an eye out for cameos by Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg as directors of Barney’s soap opera.

Watch the trailer for Barney's Version

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