Memory is a tricky thing, but rarely trickier than in Barney's Version, Richard J. Lewis' film of Mordecai Richler's semi-autobiographical novel.
A picaresque tale of one man's journey through his own life, the Barney of Barney's Version can be self-serving, self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing - but, above all, self-critical. As played with ferocious energy by Paul Giamatti, Barney Panofsky is also a striver who is a compulsive truth-teller, except when it serves his purposes to do otherwise. He connives, he seduces, he bellows and whines - he is, in short, a deeply human man whose greatest struggle is always with himself.
Caught toward the ends of his life as the film begins, he is first glimpsed drunk-calling his ex-wife in the middle of the night. His life is about to be upended and he's reaching out.
The bomb that goes off in his life is a book by a former cop (Mark Addy), who insists that Barney Panofsky murdered his best friend several years earlier and skated free. So it's time for Barney to tell his side of the story.
From there, Michael Konyves' script slips back and forth in time, starting with the much-younger Barney, in Europe with his first wife (Rachel Lefevre) and his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). It's a bohemian life of sorts; he's doing the Hemingway thing in Paris, loving life - right up to the point that his wife, a depressive poet, kills herself (leaving behind a volume of poems that will achieve feminist icon status).
Back in his native Montreal, Barney meets a new woman - a Jewish princess (Minnie Driver) who pursues him as much as he pursues her. By this point, he's a successful TV producer, with a hot soap opera that he despises as unworthy of his talent - but which he's good at producing. He lets himself be talked into marriage after a whirlwind romance, though his new bride's wealthy father finds Barney obnoxious and beneath his daughter. He spots Barney for a taker, a user - which he is, though not in this case.
But then something happens to once more turn Barney's world inside out: At his wedding to the second Mrs. P, he meets the great love of his life. Her name is Miriam (Rosamund Pike) and she's a radio show host from New York. He goes so far as abandon his wedding to chase her down to her train back to the States. But she rejects his advances, pointing out (rightly) that he is only just freshly married.
That doesn't stop Barney, who begins a heated pursuit of Miriam. He sends her flowers and gifts, phones her and otherwise makes a pest of himself. Eventually, he begins traveling to New York to see her, though she refuses to get involved until he's out of his current marriage.
His new wife eventually becomes aware of his ardor for this other woman - and has a brief fling with his pal, Boogie, which leads to the crucial incident in a life full of crucial incidents: Boogie's disappearance. That there was a gun involved in Barney and Boogie's final encounter only makes the fact that Boogie is missing seem that much more sinister. But there's no body - and Barney maintains his innocence.
And that's only the first half of this incident-packed film, which offers a tour de force performance by Giamatti. With grounds for divorce from his second wife, Barney now pursues Miriam in earnest. But when they marry, he can't believe his luck at landing this goddess - and finds ways to sabotage his own happiness. Does he drive her into the arms of another man or was her eventual defection a foregone conclusion? To him it was, so either way, he's ruefully right
Lewis' film has a sprawling feel, so much so that it occasionally gets away from him. In trying to adapt Richler's encompassing novel, Lewis tries to stuff too many story elements in and, at times, it feels a bit sketchy.
What holds it together is the passion and pain of Paul Giamatti, who may now be considered one of our finest film actors. This character is a force of nature, a man who will not be denied, at once a tyrant and a teddy bear, tough, tender and, in every single moment, totally watchable. Giamatti makes you care about Barney even at his most boorish - and makes the film's finale heart-breaking in its truth.
Pike is nearly his equal, cool where he burns hot, unflappable when he is flapping wildly. Lewis also gets a nicely contained performance out of Bruce Greenwood, as the neighbor who lights Barney's jealousy fuse. Driver, as the second Mrs. P, is brassy and broad; Speedman, as the ill-fated Boogie, can't find more than one dimension to the party animal. And Dustin Hoffman, though he doesn't have a lot to do as Barney's ex-cop father, still infuses every scene with a wry wit and joy.
Barney's Version puts Paul Giamatti where he belongs: front and center in a film of great romantic, dramatic and comedic sweep. It's too early to call it the performance of his career - and he already has a couple of others that match it for detail and power. But "Barney's Version" is a movie that deserves to be seen to further cement Giamatti's reputation as an actor who seems incapable of making a false step.