Barney’s Version is a soap opera of the life of Barney Panofsky, an expatriate Canadian malcontent who becomes a very successful television producer of stuff we are to believe (because Barney does) is junk. Giamatti is Barney. Barney marries “The Second Mrs. P”, played byMinnie Driverin a nice performance as the Canadian version of a stereotypical Jewish American Princess; shrilly comedic and tragically shrill at the same time. At his own wedding he falls head over heels for Miriam, played Rosamund Pike, who gives a nicely modulated performance with a little more detail than the one in Made In Dagenham, but not discernibly different.
He tortures Driver by ignoring her during the tenure of that marriage, but becomes a nearly ideal husband when he finally wears Miriam down and marries her. His children with her grow up to be seemingly trouble free, independent, smart and in love with their Dad. That is until their Dad is unfaithful to their Mom and the inevitable divorce happens. When I say it is a soap opera I mean it. It has everything.
The problem is that when it is funny it is very obviously funny, trying too hard with thin characterizations. There are times when you can almost hear the rim shot. And when it tries to turn the corner into pathos or even tragedy, it has trouble regaining its credibility.
As good as Giamatti is in this role, the film betrays him because it is nothing more than a series of rooms he walks through. One of those rooms has Dustin Hoffman in it playing Barney’s ex-cop Father. Hoffman is funny when it’s called for, but again you can feel the effort. (A nice bit of trivia: Hoffman’s son Jake plays Barney’s son Michael, thus playing his father’s grandson. Unfortunately they don’t have a scene together.)
The true culprit and cause of my disappointment is the director, Richard J. Lewis. His credits are almost all formulaic television. It’s in every frame; in every choice he makes you can feel the rhythm of the impending commercial break and the slight nod of the head to whoever created the formula that broadcast network television directors seem forced to follow.
Barney’s Version is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre.