When a film’s protagonist is a raging asshole, it’s invariably revealed at some critical juncture that he or she is really crying on the inside. (Unless it’s a W.C. Fields picture, in which being an asshole is actually a plus.) Barney’s Version caves almost right out of the gate. As suggested by its title, this adaptation of a very well-regarded novel by Mordecai Richler—best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—takes the side of its monstrous protagonist (played by Paul Giamatti), listening to his version of events in which, surprise, his oft-dubious actions come off as basically justified, or at least can be explained away by his yen for inebriation. We don’t even get a chance to hate Barney, which works out in his favor.
First seen offering an ex-wife’s husband nude pics of his former beloved during a late night drink-and-dial, Giamatti’s Barney Panofsky is revealed in flashback to have once been only somewhat less sour. In youth, he recklessly married twice, meeting his eventual third wife (Rosamund Pike) at the wedding reception of his second (Minnie Driver, tearing into a glorified cameo). He also may or may not have semi-accidentally murdered his best friend (Scott Speedman).
Fans of the novel, and of Richler’s work in general, speak of the anti-sentimental, rollicking jaunt in which he enraptures the reader. And yet despite having the ideal cast, right down to Dustin Hoffman uncannily well-selected as Giamatti’s father, Barney’s Version becomes an excellent example of how untalented filmmakers can sabotage material that should be rocking. What should be a misanthropic joyride is, in the hands of director Richard J. Lewis (a TV vet and certainly not the comedian) and writer Michael Konyves, a grueling, soggy drag that asks us to do little but feel sorry for a total asshole—and this is well before it rewards him with Alzheimer’s in the final lap. That there are still some fine moments, notably a wickedly perverse death scene, is testament to the talent anywhere but in the director’s chair.