Review by Jack Foley
PAUL Giamatti is no stranger to playing gruff, love-struck men who audiences root for in spite of their many and obvious flaws. With Barney Panofsky, however, he delivers one of his most challenging characters yet.
By the actor’s own admission, Barney is a ‘dick’. But his heart’s in the right place. His story is complex, though.
After being harassed by a detective for his possible part in a crime that has never been solved, Barney reflects on a life that involves two failed marriages (including one to Minnie Driver’s Jewish princess) and one all-consuming passion (for Rosamund Pike’s beauty), as well as the friendship with Boogie (Scott Speedman) that may or may not have ended up in murder.
But what becomes clear from the start is that Barney isn’t necessarily a likeable person. Flawed, yes. Arrogant, partly. Unlikely ladies man, for sure. Fascinatingly complex anti-hero, absolutely.
Guided by Giamatti’s expert performance, Barney becomes a fascinating guide – a deeply flawed human being prone to following his dick more than his heart, no matter how much trouble it gets him in.
The ensuing tale is recounted via numerous flashbacks spanning several decades and also takes in Barney’s relationship with his father (Dustin Hoffman), a fun-loving detective who serves as something of an unattainable role model for Barney.
For the most part, it’s a fun journey too… episodic in places, as it tries to cram Mordecai Richler’s source novel into a manageable running time, thereby short-changing at least two of his women.
But in its depiction of the core relationships that matter to Barney (and us), the film offers an absolutely riveting character study that provides Pike with a career-best performance (and that’s saying something, bearing in mind An Education and Made in Dagenham of late), as well as more masterful camaraderie between Hoffman and Giamatti.
And as much as Barney tests the patience and seems like a schmuck, you can’t help but feel for the guy at several points in his life… never more so than when young and love-struck with Pike’s beauty on his wedding day to Driver’s loud-mouthed bride, or during his later years when struck with Alzheimer’s and regrets.
Director Richard J Lewis also deserves credit for mostly avoiding the temptation to make Barney more sympathetic than he really is, instead keeping faith with Giamatti’s ability to do so. He also keeps a good grip on pace and flits between decades and romances well.
If there’s a criticism, then the final moments are liable to a little too much spoon-feeding, which is especially grating given the intelligent nature of what’s come before, while the ambiguity surrounding the reliability of Barney’s ‘version’ of events is never properly addressed.
But in every other respect, this is a top-notch character-driven story that never fails to be anything less than fascinating, occasionally infuriating and ultimately very moving.
Running time: 133mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 23, 2011
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Paul Giamatti interview
- Barney's Version Photo Gallery