Famous quote from Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” In ‘Barney’s Version’, Richard J. Lewis’s accomplished adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel, the titular protagonist (Paul Giamatti) is given a pistol as a wedding present from his ex-cop father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman). It gets fired somewhere before the halfway mark, but the outcome is shrouded in an enigma that permeates the remainder of the film.
Lewis introduces us to Barney Panofsky (there’s an unforced joke – more an occasional joke than a running joke – where various characters pronounce it “porn-ofsky”) in late middle age: the successful chairman of a TV production company, he drinks and smokes too much, snaps at his employees, makes nuisance phone calls to his ex-wife and indulges in petty acts against her new husband, such as subscribing him to a gay porn magazine (delivery address: the guy’s office) and signing him up to an Al-Qaeda website.
It’s clear, then, that we’re in anti-hero territory from the off, and when Barney’s life is laid out in a muck-raking book by Detective O’Hearne (an almost unrecognizable Mark Addy) – the now retired cop who failed to pin a murder charge on him thirty years before – the question of whether Barney is actually guilty hangs heavily over the first act. Angrily perusing the book, Barney’s memories return him to Rome in the 1970s where he’s palling around with an artistic crowd and encouraging wannabe writer buddy Boogie (Scott Speedman) to finish his long-gestating novel.
Back in the present, however, Barney develops a degenerative disorder which afflicts his memory. As the flashbacks unfold through two continents and three marriages – to the free-spirited but mentally unstable Clara Charnofsky (Rachelle Lefevre), the hyperkinetic Jewish American princess referred to only as The Second Mrs P (Minnie Driver) and the eventual love of his life Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) – Lewis plies us with the cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator, right down a split second lacuna that full stops a sequence involving Barney, Boogie, a lake house, copious quantities of alcohol and that aforementioned hand gun.
Anchored by a typically lugubrious Giamatti performance – after ‘American Splendour’, he was always going to be indie cinema’s go-to guy for this kind of role – ‘Barney’s Version’ boasts a whole bunch of hella good actors turning in excellent work. Pike is as good as she’s ever been, providing the emotional heart of the movie. Driver is hilarious and steals every scene she’s in. I’ve seen Lefevre in little else beyond the ‘Twilight’ franchise and her work her puts that dreck firmly in its place. Speedman is better than the ‘Underworld’ flicks might have suggested. Hoffman is the best he’s been since ‘Perfume: Story of a Murderer’, obviously having a great time with his character and the movie benefiting immeasurably.
Lewis’s directorial style is unobstrusive; he trusts to Michael Konyves’s script and the talents of his cast to hold the viewer’s interest, and again the movie benefits. Not, one suspects, that he lacked for advice or mentorship on set: look out for cameos from directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Ted Kotcheff, better company than the hacks Barney employs to make his daytime soap opera. Barney’s company is called Totally Useless Productions, by the way; the exact opposite can be said of this film.