Can someone sign Paul Giamatti up to play every bellyaching, sex-obsessed Jewish antihero of 20th-century literature from now on? If you can say one thing about Richard J. Lewis's movie of Mordecai Richler's novel, it's that the film proves the 43-year-old star may be the only one who could do those great berschlemiels justice. His Barney Panofsky has the precise amount of self-aggrandizing delusions, sad-sack charm and slow-burn irritation to suggest the rich protagonist that Richler put on the page. Barney may be the kind of guy who hits on another woman (Pike) at his own wedding---to be fair, she is his soul mate---but the actor makes this mess of a human being seem oddly gallant instead of grotesque. Just think of what he could do with Alexander Portnoy, Henry Bech or Moses E. Herzog!
Giamatti and Pike provide the heart of Barney's Version---one that is unfortunately trapped in a broken-down body. A former TV director, Lewis has a knack for turning the movie's various story strands---a murder mystery, a bittersweet romance, a buddy comedy, a disease-of-the-week weepie---into the equivalent of the shamelessly pandering small-screen programming you'd find on basic cable. Even if you can forgive the crude JAP caricatures (et tu Minnie Driver?) and the blatantness of the film's attempts to make you sob, you're still left with lovely actors stuck in a lackluster cover version of the real thing.
Watch the trailer