Published four years before his death at 70, Mordecai Richler’s last novel, “Barney’s Version,” has a certain valedictory feeling, a summing-up at the end of the journey that is uncharacteristically devoid of the nasty edge of early works like “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
Sure, the rich Jews are still snooty to his working-class-roots protagonist and his hero is still a preoccupied with bedding a many women as possible, preferably non-Jewish, but there is a certain calm, the resignation that comes from a sense that the circus is packing up and moving on, leaving the author behind. (There is even a little less vitriol aimed at his native Montreal, admittedly a city with a rich history of anti-Semitism.)
At its best moments, Richard J. Lewis’ amiable film of “Barney’s Version,” which opened last week, catches that tone, perhaps even better than the novel did. If so, a lot of the credit belongs to Paul Giamatti, who plays Barney Panofsky, working his way through three marriages in as many decades, and to Dustin Hoffman as his ex-cop father Izzy. When the two of them are enjoying intimate moments of male bonding, there is a sense of shared experience between the two actors that has the ring of lived-in truth.
In theory, however, the heart of the film is Barney’s successes and failures with his three wives: the bohemian, supposedly “shiksa goddess” Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), the wealthy materialist snob known only as the Second Mrs. P (Minnie Driver, utterly wasted on a one-note character — the note, of course, is a shrill whine), and his perfect seemingly unattainable third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Here, too, Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konvyes have softened some of Richler’s trademark misogyny. Clara is a nasty piece of work, but clearly disturbed and when we meet her obnoxious Orthodox father from Brighton Beach (Saul Rubinek), one has a sense of what she has been running from. The underwritten second wife — couldn’t they give the poor woman a name? — is another rehash of the Jewish-American Princess cliché, even though she’s from Montreal.
But with Miriam, Richler, Lewis and Konvyes turn the tables, albeit somewhat predictably. She has no apparent flaws, yet Barney still manages to screw things up after their two children leave home for college and career. Inevitably, she will end up divorcing him (as we learn at the very beginning of the film). It will be he who betrays her in a grotesque scene that almost destroys the film’s tone as badly as it does their marriage. It is a misstep in which Lewis and Konvyes slide back into the cartoonishness that runs through the first third of the film at a point in which the film has taken on a soberness that is refreshing.
Then again, Miriam and Izzy are the only two characters who don’t betray Barney in some fashion. There is an unmistakable tendency in Giamatti’s character’s towards self-pity, and Barney is a master.
Giamatti is making a career out of being put upon. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini use his sulkiness to great effect in “American Splendor,” arguably his best performance to date, but Harvey Pekar has earned his hang-dog looks and soggy self-disgust in ways that Barney Panofsky seemingly hasn’t. After all, he seems to be contented as the producer of a long-running Canadian soap and he did finally find the right girl, even if he lost her through his own stupidity.
Yet in the final third of the film, beginning with the disintegration of that cherished marriage, Barney’s life seems to wind down even as it spins out of control. And by the simple device of Giamatti slowing down the rhythms of his performance, we begin to see an underlying humanity, even an utterly unlikely dignity, in Panofsky. The character and the film itself experience a decrescence, a diminishing of energy and affect that is, finally, quite moving. Like an underwound spring-driven clock, Barney and his version slow to a gradual halt. It is a risky choice for both actor and director, but it pays emotional dividends like almost nothing else in the film.
“Barney’s Version,” directed by Robert J. Lewis, is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (62nd St. and Broadway) and the Union Square Stadium 14 (850 Broadway).