Giamatti’s on familiar ground here – smart, schlubby and up against it. But if Barney just gets on with being Barney, the movie is burdened by a sense of responsibility to Montreal literary lion Mordecai Richler’s final novel. Criss-crossing the decades, the story rather too carefully picks its way through rocky marriage (shrill Jewish princess Minnie Driver) and seemingly blissful romance (Rosamund Pike, working wonders in a sketchily motivated role). It’s all shaped round a pivotal friendship between Barney and free-spirited pal Boogie (Scott Speedman), obviously representing the carousing liberation the convention-bound protagonist wishes for himself.
It all adds up to a sprawling portrait of maleness, but while the central character is far from uncaring, the movie overindulges his relentless, if unselfconscious, egotism and asks us to be swept along by it. Somehow it feels rooted in 1970s chauvinism, but with Giamatti’s cuddle-factor sweetening the bitter taste, and Pike putting up sterner resistance than the rest of the women. Maybe more celluloid allure would draw us in, but for a movie ostensibly about the power of unruly desires, it’s all just a bit too ordered, prim and overlit.
Still, if Richard J Lewis’s direction is too sensible for its own good, there’s enough Richler-derived scope and sophistication to provide grown-up appeal, and Dustin Hoffman kicks in some memorable scene-stealing as Giamatti’s embarrassingly no-nonsense old dad.