In the new, lopsided love story, “Barney’s Version,” Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) once again proves you don’t have to be great looking to be a great actor. He possesses that uncanny ability to elevate the role of a schlub to an endearing level.
The film is based on a 1997 novel by Mordecai Richler (to whom the movie is dedicated) and is loosely autobiographical. The story is told in retrospect, but from the outset we know that Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a soap-opera producer, may have been involved in a murder. This really isn’t the focal point of the film, though. It’s all about Barney ... his womanizing, his excessive drinking, his debauchery and his surprisingly endearing nature.
Overweight and balding, Barney manages to score well with the women. His first wife kills herself after miscarrying a child whom Barney supposedly fathered. Wife No. 2 (Minnie Driver, nailing Jewish princess) doesn’t have a fighting chance, because Barney fell in love with another woman (the fetching Rosamund Pike) at their wedding reception.
At this juncture, “Barney’s Version” took me back to another era and two films which defined it: “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), in which Charles Grodin fell in love with Cybil Shepard on his honeymoon, and “Goodbye Columbus” (1969), in which Richard Benjamin, after having married Ali McGraw, finds they don’t have much in common. But as “Barney’s Version” progresses, the film begins to feel like “Terms of Endearment.”
Director Richard J. Lewis (“Whale Music”) has assembled a dynamic cast, which includes Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s ex-cop father. Giamatti’s and Hoffman’s scenes together are perfection and a joy to watch. The film sports a great script by Michael Konyves and the soundtrack is sheer heaven — packed with golden oldies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Giamatti skillfully creates a character that the audience loves to hate. We forgive Barney’s indiscretions and, yet, wonder why. He is primarily responsible for making “Barney’s Version” the exquisite little gem of a film that makes you laugh and leaves you crying.