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Giamatti shines as boozy 'Barney'

So (un)happy together in 'Barney's Version.'

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'BARNEY'S VERSION': Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman star.
  • 'BARNEY'S VERSION': Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman star.

When Barney Panofsky's rakish friend Boogie tells him, "I'll never miss any of your weddings," the irony isn't far behind. Already once married, and power-drinking through his wedding reception de jure, Barney is a heartbeat away from ducking out of that party. He races to catch up to a striking, voluble woman he knows only as Miriam, having met her just moment earlier. As he professes his heels-over-headness to her, he's summarily dismissed both by her and by the ticket agent on her departing train.

That's the instant when "Barney's Version," a profane and touching portrait of a thoroughly flawed man's romances, becomes a film about doing things rather than accepting what comes. Paul Giamatti's performance as the title character is perhaps the strongest and most fully realized of his cinematic career; his portrayal of the boozy, cigar-chomping Barney won the Golden Globe this year as the best actor in a musical or comedy (yet earned the Oscar snub Award so standard for funny performances). And truly the movie becomes him. Dustin Hoffman nearly steals the show as Barney's father, a doting retired cop named Izzy; and Rosamund Pike exudes charm and forbearance as Miriam. But it's Giamatti who must carry the tune to convince the audience to fall for this bastard Barney and his big heart.

All loves begin with the prelude of their predecessor, and in Barney's case, his first and second marriages are such fantastical disasters that the third can't help but exceed them. He knocks up a petulant hippie in Rome in the '70s and allows himself to be dragged through a short, doomed marriage; he follows that with a looks-good-on-paper betrothal to a wealthy but tone-deaf brunette (Minnie Driver) so inconsequential to Barney's heart that the film bills her only as "2nd Mrs. 'P.' " That relationship detonates when Boogie (Scott Speedman) drops in to detox. He and Barney quarrel. Shots are fired. Boogie disappears, leaving one cop so convinced of foul play that he later authors a hardback expose on Barney's supposed motives. We're left to wonder whether Barney is a monster tucked inside a merely irascible man, or a terminal romantic gone to spore.

The storytelling suffers at times from a whiplash of flashbacks, and director Richard J. Lewis' direction occasionally betrays his background as an auteur of "CSI" episodes as he adapts this, the last of Mordecai Richler's 10 novels. The aftertaste, too, is muddled. Every vice that helps destroy the characters — drunkenness, lust, jealousy, adultery, conniving — also earns a measure of celebration. And what of Barney? The most charitable view, perhaps, is that he did know, deep down, what would satisfy him: a wife, young children and his father near at hand. Virtually everything leading to and from that moment is a mismanaged expression of his desire for that one thing. At least if he continued to make himself miserable, we can grant him that he did also make himself happy, once.

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