You’d think that January would be a month brimming with cinematic gems — a new year means new opportunities, in turn, allowing fresh talents to be inducted into the grand scheme of Hollywood. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case, and for any dignified film connoisseur, January is just the beginning of a cold and barren expanse of time where studios decide to dump their stinkers — freeing up their schedules for any tour de force productions that they have planned. So where does Richard J. Lewis’ Barney’s Version come into play? This adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s eponymous novel is a diamond in the rough, with slick production and fine performances by Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who play a father and son respectively. However, Michael Konyves’ screenplay is marred by a sloppy narrative that erupts into complete chaos by the film’s third act.
“You’ve screwed over anyone you ever cared about,” snaps one of Barney’s (Giamatti) co-workers at “Totally Unnecessary Productions,” a studio dedicated to cheesy daytime soaps. And by the end of Lewis’ ambitious character “dramedy,” the severity Barney’s destructive influence, brash decisions, and sharp tongue becomes clear. We learn about his three wives and the downfall of each of those marriages — reasons ranging from boredom to selfishness. We experience first-hand Barney’s drug-abuse, which leads to the mysterious disappearance of his best friend, Constable O’Malley of the North (Paul Gross), a pretty boy freeloader, whose body has never been recovered following a drunken nose-dive into a lake. And of course, we see his spite towards his third wife, Miriam’s (Rosamund Pike) new partner. With all these bits and pieces of Barney’s character, the scene is set; it turns out that he isn’t only hurting those around him, but also himself. But you can’t help but pity him.
Due to Giamatti’s immaculate performance, Barney’s Version becomes more than just the story of a maladjusted brute. The actor is hammy, showing an easy-going playfulness, when need be, but not once does it spill over to the dramatic side of Barney, where Giamatti shows passion and frustration. With brilliant comedic timing and expansive emotional range, it comes as a surprise that the actor is still relatively unknown. Perhaps it’s because Giamatti picks apart all future roles — declining appearances in mainstream, cash cows (although he did star in Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up) — instead focusing on smaller projects that aren’t ruled by contractual agreements and computer-generated images.
Chemistry is also a big part of Giamatti’s appeal: The man plays nice with most everyone. This holds true with Hoffman especially, where, as Izzy Panofsky, former cop and paranoiac, the seasoned actor is brilliant. The role requires less range and more charisma, and Hoffman has just that, showing that when he is engrossed in a role, any character can automatically become likable. As the father, Izzy is a key factor in Barney’s development, and Hoffman makes sure that it’s visible on-screen. The two actors share mannerisms and Barney’s respect for Izzy is evident in Giamatti’s expressions. Plus the duo looks like they’re havin’ a helluva time on set — always a plus.
With two powerful leads and crisp direction, all that the film needed was a polished script. Sadly, Konyves’ attempt is full of fat, with cheap caricatures rounding out the cast. However, some of these characters do work, such as Barney’s second wife (Minnie Driver) and her father (Harvey Atkin), a pair of stuck-up millionaires that lead the plot into a couple of hilarious moments. Though, as a message to all inspiring screenwriters, who want to take cues from the Coen Brothers: Less is more; don’t do what Konyves does. Create fewer characters and expand on them — this leads to a more effective screenplay. In addition, Konyves’ work also drops the ball when the film reaches its climax, the last couple of scenes being longer than need be, with dialogue being hit-or-miss at this point. However, the merits outweigh the flaws, making Barney’s Version an impressive motion-picture.