Despite his air of an also-ran, Paul Giamatti's Barney is something of a success. He's a television producer who oversees totally unnecessary productions — as overheard, that sounds like a qualifier of the pointless soaps he makes, but it's actually the name of his production house: Totally Unnecessary Productions. Could this be a pun on the pointlessness of his own life, as it lurches through needlessly manufactured (and convoluted) twists and turns that could rival any soap?
When Barney finds a mention in the local papers — the present day unfolds in Montreal — his mind is stirred, and long-dormant memories rise to the surface like sediment. Here's a flashback to Rome, 1974, when he married his first wife. There's a return to Montreal, 1975, where he wed a second time. More importantly, there, during the wedding, is his first glimpse of Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
Until Miriam enters Barney's life — and Barney's Version — we witness the unremarkable milestones of an unremarkable man. But when he rids himself of Wife Number Two, and when he declares, dramatically, to Miriam that he'll do anything for her, she tempers his throbbing passion with practicality. She does not want to be Catherine to his Heathcliff — merely wife to his husband. She says, heartbreakingly, “Don't answer ‘anything.' Life's real. It's made up of little things. Minutes, hours, naps, errands, routine — and it has to be enough.”
And this, we realise, is what the director, Richard J. Lewis, has been after from the start. The portions that appeared unremarkable, earlier, are really the undramatic components of life, stripped of the hysterics of television soap. When a daytime-TV episode features a man killing his best friend who cheated with his wife, we laugh and label it a soap. But what if this happened in front of our eyes without the wide-eyed acting, without the dramatic music, without the cliffhanger cut to commercials? Wouldn't we just call it life?
Barney's Version, based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, is essentially a compilation of the minutes, hours, errands and routines that make up Barney's life. Lewis touches on the seething anti-Semitism in the police force, the tentative rapprochements that sons make with enfeebled fathers, the startling suddenness with which the universe can throw a stone into the placid pond of your life, even the difference between “less than” and “fewer than.” The question, therefore, is whether this is all too much for a single story, and for an answer, we must rely on our preference for the novelistic versus the cinematic.
Children of the cinema, weaned on narratives of momentum rather than mood, might wish for a Barney's Version 2.0, a movie with lesser sprawl, fewer longueurs and more likeable characters. In other words, they might dismiss this as a totally unnecessary production. But there are those of us who do not mind — and perhaps even welcome — the screen accommodating the rambling traditions of the old-fashioned novel, with tropes like the unreliable narrator (which Barney is finally revealed to be; hence the title — this is merely a version of Barney's story).
And for the latter, this is a rich and rewarding film, lit from the inside by incandescent performances by Giamatti and Pike. By the end, we are no longer mystified by the attraction such a fundamentally flawed man holds for so many ethereal women, so much out of his league. We too have developed a deep — and completely unlikely — affection for him, which is probably just another way of saying that during the course of these two-something hours we've learnt to love some of the unlovable bits of our own fundamentally flawed selves.
Director: Richard J. Lewis
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman
Storyline: The romantic misadventures of the kind of man we do not typically see in romantic movies.
Bottomline: The patient are rewarded with a moving experience.