The late Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, best known south of the border for the film version of his 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was a bellicose practitioner of Jewish fiction in the manner of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, with a mad helping of Joseph Heller. The joyfully anachronistic Richler took fierce delight in skewering the politics and culture of his beloved, hopelessly divided home province of Quebec, but his subject was human venality in all its forms, invariably seen through the eyes of a haplessly unreliable Jewish narrator as acute in his perceptions of the vanities and follies of others as he is blind to his own.
So it comes as a big letdown that director Richard J. Lewis (who made Whale Music and a whole lot of CSI, and should not be confused with comedian Richard Lewis), working from a reasonably faithful screenplay by Michael Konyves, has made such a mushy pudding out of Richler’s 1997 last novel. Barney’s Version misses every opportunity for raucous picaresque fun that the book throws its way, while squandering a wealth of transatlantic performing talent led by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti mugs away gamely as the titular un-hero, Barney Panofsky, a Montreal producer of schlock television whom we meet adjusting poorly to geezer status and reflecting, with insufficient Richleresque bile, on his magnificently botched life. Regrets, Barney’s had a few, leading with the loss of his adored third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike, a cool, intelligent beauty but a bit of a stretch as a sensible Jewish radio talk-show host), to a Vegan New York producer (Bruce Greenwood).
The other lost love of Barney’s life is Boogie Moscovitch (Scott Speedman), an erudite alcoholic who, long ago in a young-blade sojourn in Paris, taught Barney everything he knows about literature and all things carnal. Their tortured relationship, and Boogie’s death by ambiguous means, is the occasion for great wads of artless flashbacking to 1950s France, where Giamatti, sweating beneath an unpersuasive chestnut wig, makes the usual rite-of-passage life mistakes before stumbling on his God-given gift for making money. Back and forth the movie plods between Barney’s wastrel youth, his hapless present, and a ballooning sack of intervening years in which he gets himself hitched for the second time to a rich Jewish vixen whom we are meant to despise. Had she been written by a Gentile, the second Mrs. P. would have raised a thousand cries of anti-Semitism, but Minnie Driver, the only actor (unless you count Dustin Hoffman, having fun as Barney’s socially graceless but lovable dad) who’s not on slumbering auto-pilot, manages to invest this rich bitch with a strident integrity that’s endearing even as the disproportionate noise she makes throws the movie out of whack.
Somnolently paced and emotionally constricted, Barney’s Version never finds a rhythm or, for that matter, a theme to call its own. Worse yet, give or take a few moments of televised hockey, the Canadian-born Lewis strips the novel of Richler’s rambunctiously Dickensian sense of place and local character, missing a golden opportunity to dispose of tired clichés about milquetoast Canada. Pay close attention in the movie, and you’ll catch cameos by three homegrown filmmakers who I bet would have made Barney’s Version their own without ditching Richler’s vitally iconoclastic spirit. Quebecois director Denys Arcand, a perfect match for Richler’s antic exuberance, has a couple of brief reaction shots as a waiter, while Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg come and go so fast, I missed them altogether.
However you place Richler in the literary pantheon—he was praised by some as a clear-eyed observer of postmodernity and dismissed by others as an equal-opportunity bad-mouther—he was a gleeful provocateur who wrote in funny, excoriating, entertainingly hectic prose. And he had passion to burn: When Richler’s Barney tells Miriam he’ll never give up on her years after their marriage is over, you believe him even though his chronic unreliability as a narrator is accelerated by alarming portents of senility. Though movie-Barney faithfully gets the right words out, you can’t help thinking that this sweetly uxorious, if clueless fellow who strays here and there gave up not just on Miriam but on life itself long ago. Barney’s Version may be dedicated to Richler, who died in 2001, but I can see him now, rolling his eyes.