It’s 3:30 in the morning. An old man, hands shaking from liquor, dials the phone. He demands to talk to his wife, but the man on the other end refuses to wake her. Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is left disconnected, miserable, but victorious, too—once again he’s irritated the hell out of his wife’s new husband.
In the love-hate relationship Barney has with himself, he enjoys being a jerk so much he can’t stop. Immediately we know we’re in for some serious, and fun, and unforgettable self-reflection—a rare treat at the movies and one that thoughtful adults should not miss.
The morning newspaper blares a front page story about Barney. A lurid tell-all claims to expose his nefarious business dealings and revive the accusation he murdered his best friend. Is he really as horrible as the book asserts? To set the record straight, even if it’s just for himself, warts and all, Barney must tell his version of his life.
As if his whole life were speeding in front of his eyes before drowning, key scenes come rushing to the surface. And they all turn out to be about love—how Barney knew it and how he blew it.
There are his three wives, especially Miriam whom he still adores. Men are important, too—his randy, supportive father, Izzy (a charming Dustin Hoffman), and his youthful friends, especially Boogie (Scott Steadman), a promising writer. However, like a ravenous demon, Alzheimer’s disease hovers over Barney’s memories, forcing the distant past into clear focus, but rendering yesterday blurry.
Such a complex character, on such a treacherous journey, is the role of a lifetime and Paul Giamatti grabs it with mind-churning exuberance and brutal honesty. In a word, he’s brilliant. (He won Best Actor at the Golden Globes, but was overlooked for an Oscar, a terrible oversight.) Puffing cigars like pacifiers, marching through his fiefdom at Totally Unnecessary Productions as the tyrant producer of the long-running TV soap opera, O’Malley of the North, Barney is the pudgy schlub whom men dismiss, and the gallant suitor women find irresistible. He’s the purveyor of schlock who treasures great literature, and the good son whose own kids hate him. Above all, Barney is an incurable romantic, driven by chivalric virtues of love, honor, and loyalty.
In his feature film debut, TV director Richard J. Lewis (CSI.) has performed the impossible, making Canadian novelist Mordecai Richlers’ sprawling last novel (1997) fit into a two-hour format. Like a real memory, Barney’s Version meanders a bit, but it is always intensely present because of Paul Giamatti’s performance. He and his stellar surrounding cast transform the film into a feast for actors and those who love them.
In carefree Rome, young Barney marries Clara (Rachel Lefevre), his flame-haired, nutty lover, because it’s the honorable thing to do when she gets pregnant. Alas, after betraying Barney, she kills herself.
Back home, Barney sets out to do what every single Jewish man in Montreal should do—make a lot of money and marry up. The 2nd Mrs. P., as she is called (the enthusiastic Minnie Driver), is an annoying but sympathetic shopaholic Jewish princess. It wasn’t her fault that during their lavish wedding reception, Barney spots lovely Miriam (the astonishing Rosamund Pike), and falls madly in love with her.
A few weeks later, at Barney’s summer cabin, he finds the 2nd Mrs. P. and old pal Boogie in the sack together. Though Barney is thrilled that the inevitable divorce will leave him free to pursue Miriam, he still thinks he should punch out Boogie. The two drunks grapple and the gun Barney had been waving goes off. Boogie falls into the lake and is never seen again. Barney is haunted that he might have killed his best friend, but without a body, he is never officially charged.
Barney and Miriam end up getting married. Two deliriously happy decades, with two children, seem to fly by. Barney is so devoted to Miriam, he couldn’t possibly deliberately screw things up, could he?
Only later, when Barney’s will reveals the secrets of his generosity, do his children learn what kind of man their father was. In spite of himself, and despite all his mistakes, Barney had become a good and honorable man, a real mensch.