In Barney's Version, which is based on Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel of the same name, Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a man who is simultaneously angry and loving, suspicious and giving. He's a complicated and not terribly likable guy. But you do like him. Is it because of the intense love he has for his third wife? Is it because of his unfaltering faith in his best friend? Is it because of all the unexpected hardships he's faced?
It's a little bit of all of those, I suppose. But more than anything else, the ultimate schmo is likable because Giamatti makes him so. The actor imbues the character with his characteristically comic and heartbreaking desire and desperation.
If it seems like I'm focusing a lot on Giamatti and his character here, there's a reason. First, Barney's Version is the adult life story of Barney, so, understandably, there's lot of him in the film. Because of this, the film's success absolutely hinges on Giamatti's ability to make Barney work for us as a character. The rest of the cast (including Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, and Rosamund Pike, among others) is wonderful, too, but pair them with a lesser Barney and their performances would have gone nowhere – even with Giamatti's magic, it's difficult to see why three women agree to marry this guy, or why he has such cool friends. The script, while often beautiful or poignant, jumps across the chapters of Barney's life with a careless abandon, often leaving critical conflicts to languish for huge periods of time (Barney was suspected of a murder? Of whom? Did he do it? Does anyone really care?). One might argue that, in a real life story, the plot arc is never as clear cut as in your typical movie. But the fact remains: this IS a movie. In order to really succeed, it should feel like one.
Much ado has been made about the fact that this film is nowhere near as great as the book. I haven't read the book, but I'm sure that's true. When is the movie ever as good as the book? (Though, as Jim Gaffigan says, "You know what I liked about the movie? NO READING.) Even the greatest book adaptations can never fit in all the details. That's why there are several hours of bonus footage on the Lord of the Rings DVDs. Filming it was probably fun, but trying to turn a four-hour movie into a blockbuster borders on insanity. What I can say, from my lowly hasn't-read-the-book perspective, is that part of what sounds great about the Barney's Version novel is its gimmick – it's told from the perspective of an aging and senile Barney, with footnotes and corrections from his son's point of view. Perhaps the film could have worked in this gimmick. Putting your narrator's perspective into question is a bold choice, but maybe it would have worked.
Enough about the film adaptation that could have been. In the end, taken by itself (which is the only way I can currently judge it), Barney's Version is a beautiful, heartwrenching film that also happens to have some awkward holes. If nothing else, it's a lesson in what a movie can be: flawed, imperfect, and still lovely. Oh, and producers of less-than-perfect scripts take note, please: a little Paul Giamatti might just be the fix you need.