The very title of Richard J. Lewis' Barney's Version, an adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name, suggests a compelling approach to a life's story. The Barney in question is mildly successful television producer Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), perhaps known for his work on the fictional but nonetheless long-running Canadian soap Constable O'Malley of the North. When we first meet him he's a 65-year-old survivor of three marriages and a murder rap, and seems to be losing his memory. Whether or not it's the definitive telling—and autobiographies so rarely are—Barney's version of what happened is sure to be the most colorful.
The flashbacks come quickly, and dominate the film. The youngest we see Barney is age 30, living la dolce vita in Italy as a glad patron of the arts, a role his artist friends define helpfully as being "the only one of us with a real job." Against the advice of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), Barney marries a woman (Rachelle Lefevre) he believes to be carrying his child, but their union ends quickly and tragically. Barney retreats to Montreal, where his uncle arranges a job for him as a television producer. He marries again, to Minnie Driver (credited as "The 2nd Mrs. P"), out of social convenience. At their wedding reception he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who tells him the story behind the name of his favorite and ever-present Monte Cristo cigar and updates him on the Stanley Cup finals. Following her from the banquet hall to the train station and then on to her New York-bound train, Barney has finally fallen in love. "So it really does happen," he marvels to himself, as Miriam reminds him he's got a wife to get home to.
There is a problem, though, with Barney's Version, in that Barney's version rarely carries with it any feeling of subjectivity. He is impulsive, jealous, and increasingly cranky, and exhibits from the beginning an addiction to cigars, alcohol, and professional hockey; he is also romantic, smart, and, for the most part, good-hearted. In this retelling of his life there is only fair reflection, no dissonance; we have no reason to think Barney's version differs from the one anyone else who might be moved to tell his story would relate.
This unrelentingly unchallenged point of view is a disappointment more than a flaw, but there are flaws, too. Michael Konyves' script, far removed from the made-for-TV genre fare that otherwise dominates his filmography, seems content to push themes and ideas aside once they've served their initial purpose, derailing the effect of Barney's story as a whole. Take, for instance, the issue of Barney's Jewishness: His first wife lays deceptive claim to his supposed desire for a shiksa, or non-Jewish bride, while his loveless second marriage finds him in the midst of a proud, identifiably Jewish family—the patriarch of which challenges Barney's father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), a former policeman, on his claims of institutional anti-Semitism. When Barney eventually couples with the truly shiksa Miriam, though, the subject is abandoned. Perhaps this is intentional, as Barney has "escaped"; if so, it still has nothing in particular to do with the bigger picture of the film.
Even more conspicuous is Boogie's alleged murder, played up from the film's first moments as Barney encounters the lead investigator-turned-true-crime author in his usual watering hole. The drunken, half-remembered incident functions at first as a narrative and emotional through-line, especially as the event itself comes at the climax of one of the film's most engaging and otherwise pivotal scenes; shortly afterward it is abandoned until Barney's version of a coy denouement. If the main character of a film is said to have murdered his best friend, after all, it seems we should have some opinion as to whether or not he did it, and the filmmakers should have the slightest investment in what that opinion turns out to be. Apparently, this is not true of all filmmakers.
Giamatti is terrific as ever, and convincing at every point through a 36-year span. (Partial credit goes to the Oscar-nominated makeup team, which does similarly effective work for Pike and Hoffman.) The character of Barney is a good, if obvious, fit for Giamatti; while there's no reason to expect he'll start turning down roles playing a crank with a heart of tarnished gold, Barney's Version provides the opportunity for a definitive showcase, if only because films like American Splendor and Sideways shrouded superior performances in superior storytelling. There remains, though, a feeling of incompleteness. It's possible, even likely, that Barney's version of these events is satisfying in Richler's novel, but this version of a Version is anything but.