The following is a reprint of our review that first ran during the Vancouver International Film Festival.
A quick glance at the career of Richard J. Lewis tells a lot about his approach to "Barney's Version," an adaptation of revered Canadian author Mordecai Richler's prize-winning last novel. He's something of a TV journeyman, having directed episodes for more than a dozen series, and he seemed to have found a good fit for his style in "CSI," helming some 49 episodes from 2000 through 2006. However, his latest project, 'Version', comes with a level of Oscar-bait, mainstream-appeal prestige.
It's a crowd-pleaser, through and through, and also a manipulative, weepy film. Lewis isn't afraid to tug at the heart strings, too often content with going the easy route to make the audience cry. Where it, and star Paul Giamatti, shines, is in the comedy. It's often quite funny and breezy, whisking through its main character's life in the rote style of a biopic. We get all the big moments with none of the nuance. That's not to say it's a bad film, just one this writer can't drum up all that much excitement for. Lewis' aspirations are high; he wants us to really feel something, to be moved, but when stacked against other big Oscar contenders released already this year ("The Social Network," "Toy Story 3" and "Inception" for example) his talents seem better suited to standard TV fare. Those looking for more artful, interesting (read: something fresh) fare will likely at best find the film to be an adequate piece of entertainment, with some great performances.
Barney Panofsky (Giamatti, by no means stretching here, but he knows this kind of lovable schlub inside and out, and delivers) is the subject of the film. The character was described in the Vancouver International Film Festival (where we first caught the film) synopsis as a"romantic, politically incorrect and fearlessly blunt creature subject to his impulses," and while this is true, and makes for some solid drama and comedy, this writer imagines he must have seemed more original on the page.
The film plays as a set of extended flashbacks, kicked off with the release of a book by a police officer who's convinced Barney shot and killed his best friend, a free spirit writer played by Scott Speedman (his shit-eating grin and natural charm is perfectly suited to the character; easily the best work he's ever done). So right away, the film is treading in Oscar bait cliches: bookended structure, an older character looking back on his life with regrets and actors aging onscreen with unconvincing makeup. The murder subplot is never handled all that well, at times feeling as if Lewis forgot all about it, but he does pay off the "mystery" in the conclusion, though it lands with mostly a thud, mainly because of its similarities to the prologue sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia."
The rest of the film jumps back and forth through Barney's three marriages (Minnie Driver, as his second wife, will drive you crazy), leading up to another annoying goddamn cliche that would be wrong to spoil here. Suffice to say, a certain disease comes in to play for a major character, designed to procure maximum tear dropping. Barney is not that likable of a guy, but this late reveal comes off as a lazy technique to make us forget all the bad things he did, and all the people he's wronged. At first the film seems brave and willing to give us a complex human being of a main character, but all that is put aside in the sentimental finale. We're sure it's a moving part of the book (which the kindly gentleman sitting next to this writer said was "fantastic"), but onscreen it feels trite.
In the end, it's a success, but not one to inspire fervent affection. Do look for the awesome cameo by David Cronenberg as a TV director (ironic that Lewis is directing a film and casts Canada's best filmmaker as a TV guy). Other things to appreciate: it's lovingly shot on location in Montreal, hockey is a major part of Barney's life (it's a great sport), an onion is used successfully as a reoccurring motif, and Dustin Hoffman, as Barney's father, is delightful. And Paul Giamatti; how I love thee, let me count the ways. It's easy to see why he took this lead role as it's perfectly suited to him, if not a little bit been-there-done-that. Though the hairy-backed actor carries the film on his shoulders, the director seemed too comfortable going through the motions. [C+]