Do you still laugh whenever you remember Paul Giamatti in Sideways, taking Thomas Haden Church aside to hiss the warning, "I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot"? If Giamatti's particular brand of sad-eyed misanthropy floats your boat, you'll enjoy Barney's Version (Sony Pictures Classics), an overcrammed and galumphing movie that nonetheless provides a bracing jolt of pure, uncut Giamatti. Directed by Richard J. Lewis from a novel by Mordecai Richler, this generation-spanning story has a conventional, novelistic sweep, skipping among timeframes as Giamatti's Barney Panofsky, a Montreal television producer, looks back over his life and loves.
As the movie begins, a sixtysomething Barney is drinking Scotch, smoking a cigar, and making 3:30 A.M. calls to his ex-wife's current husband. How did he become such a lonely and unpleasant man? Flashback to the groovy early '70s in Rome. A younger, mop-haired Barney is living there with a group of bohemian expatriates; his first marriage, to a troubled painter, ends quickly and horribly. Back in Montreal, Barney marries again, this time to a vulgar Jewish heiress played with delicious verve by Minnie Driver. At their wedding reception, he meets a beautiful, smart, kind woman (Rosamund Pike) whom he realizes in a flash is the true love of his life. On top of Barney's marital woes, he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation: His best friend, a drug addict named Boogie (Scott Speedman) dies under mysterious circumstances, and a detective (Mark Addy) becomes obsessed with pinning the crime on Barney.
Barney's Version has too much plot for its own good (and I haven't even included the parts about Barney's father, a pugnacious retired cop played by Dustin Hoffman). There's not enough screen time to adequately develop Barney's character, much less the five or six other major players in his story. Richler's novel might have made more sense as a TV miniseries. But this seriocomic romp still earns its keep, largely because of the outstanding ensemble cast. Giamatti is simply wonderful in what could have been a one-note role. Barney's behavior may suggest that he's nothing but a cynical, two-timing drunk, but the actor's rich baritone voice and expressive physiognomy invest the character with a melancholy inner life. You even see how Barney's endless string of wives could find him sexy, especially in a charming freeze-frame that captures a briefs-clad Giamatti in midair as he leaps into bed.
It doesn't hurt that the woman waiting for him—post-leap—is the grave, luminous English actress Rosamund Pike, who, in the three small roles I've seen her in to date (An Education, Made in Dagenham, and this film) has already become a reason in herself to see anything she does. The ever-dependable Bruce Greenwood has an enjoyably unbearable cameo as the Panofskys' touchy-feely vegan neighbor. Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, and even Scott Speedman (who I thought would never shed his Felicity association) all make hay from their tiny roles. Taken as a whole, the movie's structure is lumpen, but scene by scene, it's full of vivid moments between actors. I particularly loved a scene in which Hoffman tells his middle-aged son, "You done good, boychik," and Giamatti looks back at him in silent gratitude: One of our great mensch actors passing the torch to the next.
In its last quarter, Barney's Version begins to sag under the weight of its decades of narrative. The story of the older Barney's search for redemption feels forced and maudlin, as if we needed tangible proof that the character was good at heart in order to be moved by his waning days. In seeking to win us over to his side, this movie undermines its own strength. The script doesn't need to convince us that the prickly and incorrigible Barney Panofsky is, in the end, someone worth caring about. Paul Giamatti's performance already did.