Giamatti makes the most of sketchy role

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, February 18, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

The 134 minutes of “Barney’s Version” play like a showcase for a star athlete, who gets ample opportunity to prove his prowess in a variety of sports.

In this case the sport is acting, and the athlete is Paul Giamatti, who stamps and snorts his way across this movie’s

otherwise bland surface in a bravura display of sheer skill (which won him a Golden Globe for best actor this year). Giamatti has to light up the fireworks, because the film is otherwise rudderless.

It’s based on a 1997 novel by the esteemed Canadian author Mordecai Richler, and it has the sketchy, once-over-lightly quality of a movie that desperately wants to be faithful to a wide-ranging book.

Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking TV producer in Montreal, who looks back at his life and his bullheaded progress through it.

At the beginning of the film, we are told that Barney has long been suspected of an unsolved murder, although this plot point — which, presumably, ought to be a rather lively source of interest — disappears for long stretches of the film.

More kicky to watch is Barney’s love life, which begins with a foolish marriage in Rome in the 1970s and progresses to a second wedding to an overbearing but attractive Montreal woman (Minnie Driver).

During his wedding reception, he spots the love of his life (Rosamund Pike, “An Education”), whom he recognizes as such in an instant. Yes, the timing is, shall we say, awkward, but Barney has no choice but to engineer an exit from his marriage in the swiftest way possible.

“Barney’s Version” has a crowd of people in it, including Barney’s plain-talking father (Dustin Hoffman, enjoying some nice moments) and drug-addled best friend (Scott Speedman, all seedy glamour). Yet the movie doesn’t seem to actually pause long enough to get to know Barney’s world all that well, including what he does in his work life, a long-running Canadian TV series about a Mountie.

Director Richard J. Lewis simply hasn’t found the way to translate words on a page into images that might bring this life to light. One scene follows another, reminding us of how little we know about Barney’s world.

So it’s all on Giamatti. And even if the film falls short, it’s worth a look just for the chance to see this actor, who bristles with energy even in the smallest roles, turned loose on a big, blustery part. Barney is not exactly likable, and Giamatti takes on his flaws headfirst, but draws out the rare moments of kindness, too.

He needs to work hard, because at the end of things, we still have no idea what Barney’s been all about. For that, “Barney’s Version” requires a master novelist to explain.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Harvard Exit

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