The problem with adapting Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel Barney’s Version to film is the same problem that hits so many book-to-film adaptations: The book gets into the head of a complicated man, while the film merely observes him. The book is a first-person confessional, an explication of the life and philosophy of the eponymous Barney Panofsky, a Jewish Canadian television producer with a checkered love life and a great deal to answer for. The film, lacking narration or much explanation of the character, is an outsider’s version rather than his own. It’s intriguing, but almost always frustrating. Barney is a memorable character, all acidic jabs and unrelenting, outsized selfishness. But while 132 minutes can’t do credit to an entire life, it’s an awfully long time to spend with someone so loathsomely focused on himself, and so hard to comprehend.
Paul Giamatti plays Barney over the course of more than three decades of life, beginning with a modern-day scene where he hatefully crank-calls his third ex-wife (Rosamund Pike) at 3:30 a.m., then flashing back to 1974 Rome, where he met, impregnated, and resentfully married his hateful first wife (Rachelle Lefevre). Their disastrous relationship seemingly sets him up to briefly see his rich, spoiled, but game second wife (Minnie Driver) as a catch, but at his wedding, he spies Pike from afar, declares himself in love, and begins a determined pursuit. All this wends through a handful of other plots, including his work on a terrible but long-running Canadian soap opera, and his relationship with a drug-added but brilliant writer (Scott Speedman) whom Barney is accused of murdering.
It’s a complex life, and Barney is a complex man. Giamatti plays him richly, as a smug, glib hypocrite who’s quick to judge people and dismiss them, or use them and discard them, but who nonetheless deeply loves Pike, their children, and his father (Dustin Hoffman, in his most restrained performance in many years). But in spite of all the layers at work, in spite of Giamatti’s riveting performance, and in spite of Richard Lewis’ sharp but unhurried direction, far too much is missing from this film. Most tellingly, it elides over the good periods of Barney’s life, the ones where he’s presumably not being a vicious prick, and the ones that would explain why Pike in particular accedes to his sweaty, drunken attempts to court her. Her character is a cipher who only comes into focus when she’s disappearing from his life. Meanwhile, his character spends two hours under the microscope and never entirely comes clear. Lewis’ sad, striking portrait suggests characters with vast inner lives, in a story to rival Portnoy’s Complaint or The World According To Garp. But their interior lives stay hidden, and what’s on display isn’t nearly enough.