Can the true story of a wasted life make a great, or even good, movie? “Barney’s Version” makes an impressive effort to accomplish that, but it falls short of a difficult and possibly unwise goal.
Even with the late Mordecai Richler’s outstanding writing about the “wasted life” of somebody very much like the author himself, and a star-studded cast, something is missing where the film’s gravitas and heart should be.
Typically a favorite, Paul Giamatti in the title role creates a character whose monotonous misbehavior defeats him. Barney emotes, drinks endlessly, chews on cigars and acts like a jackass in a disjointed series of often-outlandish tableaus.
Minnie Driver and Dustin Hoffman spend a few brilliant minutes having fun and they brighten the movie. Hoffman, as Barney’s father, steals the spotlight effortlessly, as usual. He’s a genuine laugh riot amid so much angst. Hoffman’s real-life son Jake has a brief but fine turn as Barney’s son.
Driver, almost unrecognizable as a Canadian-Jewish princess, is terrific.
Rosamund Pike is impressive as Barney’s one true love, and she looks the part, yet her performance is a bit too calculated. The character is too good to believe, especially in the hellish environment Barney creates.
The story centers on Barney’s two almost unbelievably bad marriages before Miriam (Pike) floats into his view — on his wedding night to wife No. 2, no less.
The introduction of Rachelle Lefevre in the role of the first, grossly psychotic, wife will make an interesting footnote in the actress’ biography. It is not her fault that this sad, wild caricature of an insane woman only drags the film further down.
Action in the film — which feels every moment of its two-plus hours — switches back and forth over many years and two continents, somewhat confusingly. Toward the end, when viewers might want to draw conclusions about the story, it is questionable whether they would care enough to make the effort.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman
Written by Mordecai Richler
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Running time 2 hours 12 minutes