Paul Giamatti is a jerk.
Not really, judging from interviews with the actor, but he plays one excellently in movies. From his wine snob/slob in Sideways to the unsociable cartoonist in American Splendor, Giamatti specializes in lack-of-character studies: people we couldn't stand spending two minutes with in real life, but for two hours on screen there's no better company to keep.
Barney's Version provides Giamatti with his most frustrating antisocial showcase so far. Based on Mordecai Richler's novel about a life in irreparable ruin, the movie crams so much into the script that its plot often seems aimless except for Barney Panofsky's headlong rush to self-destruction. Yet with everything drifting around the film's antagonizing protagonist, Giamatti's performance makes a life not worth living into one worth watching.
Barney's considerable flaws are spelled out in Giamatti's first scene, chomping a cigar in the wee hours of the morning, dialing under the influence to make a crank call to his third ex-wife's new husband. It's easy to see why three women left him; what Giamatti eventually reveals is why they were ever attracted to this lout.
Flipping through Barney's life from bohemian youth to approaching Alzheimer's, we get glimpses of the man he could've been. Doing the right thing hasn't paid off; he marries Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) believing she's pregnant with his child, but that's only her first lie. Doing the smart thing by marrying a beautiful woman (Minnie Driver) from a wealthy family doesn't even work for the duration of the wedding reception.
That's when Barney spies Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a distant guest of the bride's and the woman of his dreams. Why? Because she's lovely with a voice to match, willing to discuss cigar trivia and hockey — the groom's passions that the bride is already harping about. Barney impetuously follows Miriam to the train station, where she rebuffs his profession of love, but that won't stop him.
The first scene tips the fact that they will marry and bitterly divorce. Meanwhile, a decades-old unsolved murder case involving Barney and his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) still has a hard-nosed detective (Mark Addy) on Barney's back. There are also amusing intrusions by Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father, Izzy, a former cop whose vulgar demeanor obviously was passed along to his son.
That's a lot for director Richard J. Lewis to juggle in his feature film debut, with results that are serviceable, no more or less. But Giamatti is a superb expressionist of emotional flotsam, with a Golden Globe for his effort — although dubiously in the "musical or comedy" category. He doesn't sing, and Barney's Version isn't funny except in the cruelest definition of the word.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.