In this tragicomic indie (for lack of a better genre classification), based on the 1997 Mordecai Richler novel, we first meet the crabby Barney Panofsky, played by Paul Giamatti, drunkenly cold calling his ex-wife at 3 AM.
It's a suitable introduction for such a lovably pathetic character, one that has shades of Giamatti's likewise hung-up-on-his-ex-wife work in SIDEWAYS.
Though here Giamatti swigs hard liquor not wine, and he’s got a devious confidence, but he still tumbles down a hill in the middle of a tussle with his best friend as he did in that 2004 sleeper hit.
In a modern day Montreal bar, Mark Addy as a crusty old ex-cop slides across the bar to Giamatti a copy of his just published sensationalistic book (“With Friends Like These”) which speculates on the dark past of our aging protagonist. Addy addles closer, getting up in Giamatti's face, and says:
“You screwed over everyone you ever knew or cared about. Now the whole world’s gonna know what a murderer you really are.”
Giamatti responds: “You could use a mint.”
As he pages through the hardback, Giamatti flashbacks to Rome in the mid '70s where he is living it up bohemian style. He marries his pregnant girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre), but it's a short lived honeymoon when he finds out the baby isn't his.
The film goes back and forth through the last few decades giving us ample opportunity to piece together the scrappy narrative that mainly concerns Giamatti's 3 marriages.
Lefevre commits suicide shortly after the couples' estrangement, Giamatti relocates to Canada taking a television producer gig, and in the process meets a wealthy Jewish princess played to perfection by Minnie Driver.
Driver, of course, becomes wife #2. The comic predicament that Giamatti finds himself in is that he falls head over heels in love with another woman (Rosamund Pike) right after getting married to Driver - at their wedding reception mind you.
A further wrinkle is provided when a junkie boozer writer wannabe friend (Scott Speedman) from Giamatti’s days in Italy shows up wasted at his lakeside cottage. I won’t spill the beans on what transpires there, but I will tell you that this is where Addy’s future murder accusations come into play.
The always welcome Dustin Hoffman has a short, but sweet role as Giamatti’s retired policeman father Izzy who amusingly doles out questionable advice while constantly embarrassing his son.
Those looking for a rom com (as the trailers are packaging it as such) are likely to be a bit overwhelmed by the sad intensity of much of “Barney’s Version”, but those looking for a drama with depth are going to find a lot to wallow in.
That said, there are a lot of genuinely funny moments in this film. There's a lot of sharp wit, but the tone is set mainly by humor of the cringe inducing variety.
The chemistry between Giamatti and 3rd wife Pike is strongly affecting although we know it’s a doomed union. When the suave Bruce Greenwood appears and hits it off with Pike (much to Giamatti’s chagrin) we know for sure that their marriage is in trouble.
But we knew that from the start as we have seen the elder broken down Giamatti – a very convincing makeup job that scored an Oscar nomination for Adrien Morot – and know that’s he will most likely die alone.
So Giamatti sits and stews in his memories, repeatedly requesting Leonard Cohen songs on the radio, and ignoring the attempts to care for him that his daughter (Anna Hopkins) makes.
Cohen croons “Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in,” - a fitting epitaph for a man whose romanticized yet jagged memories are all he has left.