Two kinds of novels are especially difficult to adapt for the movies: sprawling, shapeless character studies that span decades in the protagonist’s life; and postmodern experiments in form. Barney’s Version, the final book written by Canadian author Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), falls into both categories, so the fact that the film—call it director Richard J. Lewis’ version—isn’t a total disaster comes as something of a pleasant surprise. There’s never a moment when you’re not aware that you’re watching something that’s been whittled down and compromised, but the able cast offers enough amiable distraction to compensate, at least to some degree, for the vague sense that the point has gone missing.
Paul Giamatti, in typically fine irascible form, plays the title character, a hack TV producer with a code of personal conduct so shaky that he begins pursuing his third wife at his second wedding. Much of the film, which bounces erratically to and fro over Barney’s entire life, chronicles his stormy relationship with the remarkably tolerant Miriam, who’s brought to preposterously radiant life by the superb English actress Rosamund Pike (An Education). Other, fuzzier subplots feature Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s dad, Izzy, and Scott Speedman as a pal named Boogie, whose disappearance puts a suspicious cop (Mark Addy) on our antihero’s tail.
Scene by scene, Barney’s Version holds your attention, but you’re never quite sure what you’re watching—which is because Richler’s novel, like most first-rate literature, is effectively untranslatable. Written in the first person by Barney, the book features scores of clarifying footnotes penned by Barney’s son, informing the reader of what actually took place; it gradually becomes clear that the narrator’s reliability has been severely hampered by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Needless to say, none of that makes it to the screen, thereby rendering even the title somewhat meaningless (as there’s no competing “version” of the film’s events). The movie merely tosses up a series of amusing incidents and wraps it up with a rueful life lesson. But it also provides a showcase for some terrific actors, and sometimes that’s nearly enough.