out of Five
Running time: 132
Enjoyable, emotionally engaging and darkly funny comedy drama with a sharply written script and terrific performances from a superb ensemble cast.
What's it all about?
Directed by Richard J Lewis, Barney's Version is based on the novel by Mordecai Richler and stars Paul Giamatti as grouchy Jewish TV producer Barney Panofsky, who looks back over his event-filled life and its three marriages as his memory begins to deteriorate. Barney's first marriage is to neurotic, insecure Clara (Rachel Lefevre) in 1970s Rome, which ends abruptly when it turns out she's pregnant with his friend's baby; his second marriage to Jewish princess Minnie Driver collapses just as quickly, not least because he meets third wife-to-be Miriam (Rosamund Pike) at the reception of his own wedding.
Meanwhile, in the present, Barney struggles with the day-to-day realities of his divorce from Miriam (with whom he is obviously still in love) and is haunted by a detective (Mark Addy) who's convinced that Barney murdered his best friend (Scott Speedman) back in the 1980s, after he discovered he had been sleeping with his wife.
Paul Giamatti is terrific as Barney, managing to keep the character gruffly likeable throughout, even when he behaves like an utter bastard. Rosamund Pike is equally good, delivering perhaps her best performance to date as Miriam, while there's terrific comic support from Dustin Hoffman as Barney's wildly inappropriate father and Minnie Driver continues her run of wonderful supporting roles with a delightful turn as The Second Mrs P.
To be fair, there isn't much of an actual plot to speak of – the murder mystery is all but ignored, for example – and the story steers clear of the book's portrait of Barney as a possibly unreliable, Alzheimer's-influenced narrator. Instead, this is very much an engaging character study, exploring familiar ideas of family, friendship, loyalty and betrayal through the eyes of a not entirely sympathetic but always likeable lead character.
Lewis orchestrates a number of terrific scenes, most notably the entire second wedding sequence, culminating in a wonderful dash-to-the-station scene that adds a delightfully knowing twist to that tried-and-trusted romcom staple. Praise is also due to the make-up department, who work miracles on both Giamatti and Pike without resorting to any of that prosthetic nonsense.
Barney’s Version is an entertaining, darkly funny and ultimately moving comedy-drama with a superb script, a wonderful supporting cast and an award-winning central performance from Paul Giamatti. Highly recommended.