Returning to somewhat familiar terrain, Paul Giamatti reminds the audience why he is such an infinitely watchable actor in the flawed Barney’s Version; his performance, together with Rosamund Pike’s, narrowly salvaging an uneven and often frustrating film from collapsing in on itself.
The eponymous Barney is introduced in his twilight years looking worse for wear, years of protracted misery etched across his face. Soon enough he is being angrily confronted in a grubby bar by a burly ex-detective brandishing a book allegedly containing evidence that Barney is in fact a murderer who has somehow miraculously evaded the courts and continues to walk a free man.
Curiosity successfully stirred, the story leaps back to Rome in the 1970s where Barney is living the bohemian life, happy to while away the days refining his future alcoholism in the company of aspiring artists and novelists who pertain to be his friends but are in fact too narcissistic to have any. In addition to this unsavoury crowd, Barney meets and eventually marries Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), an entrancingly beautiful free spirit sadly not reflected by her ugly, punishing personality. Indeed, the closest Clara comes to expressing anything nearing affection is unleashing a roll-call of insults which include mocking his “3 inch cock” in public. When Barney discovers Clara’s infidelity after the miscarriage of their child and she commits suicide, he returns to his native Montreal where his formative years in Italy will proceed to haunt and determine the rest of his life.
Barney’s life soon resembles a bundle of rushed decisions. First he marries a snobby Jewish girl (Minnie Driver) with whom he has nothing in common, exacerbated when he temporarily leaves their wedding to pursue Miriam (Pike) who promptly rejects him. Settling down to a desperately unhappy marriage and a job producing schlock television shows for a company called Totally Unnecessary Productions, Barney’s life gets a jump start when his best friend is killed, seemingly by him, during a ferociously drunken argument. Neither the audience nor Barney is certain of what really happened but it is enough to drive away his wife for good and allow him one last shot at happiness with Miriam.
Barney’s Version’s narrative density is like an overcrowded mouth, too many competing elements for them all to fit in comfortably. There is also the problem with the material’s relationship with its title, the events portrayed not always clearly defined as belonging to Barney. When he is later diagnosed with a cognitive disorder that casts doubt on whether or not we can be sure of what we have seen, it is too late a development to firmly plant Barney in the role of an unreliable narrator which could have the leant proceedings an added dramatic bite.
Having not read the novel from which Barney’s Version is adapted, I cannot vouch for its superiority but one suspects it performs better as a work of literature which might better facilitate plot’s obvious wit and clever twists. However, despite some impressive performances, including a fairly enjoyable turn by Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s working class Jewish father, it is a limp affair that is easily forgotten, crushed into shapelessness by the weight of its own ambition.