Strong performances propel award-winning ‘Barney’s Version’

Paul Giamatti (left) as Barney and Dustin Hoffman as Izzy in ‘Barney’s Version.’ Photo by Takashi Seida, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his performance as Barney Panofsky, a wisecracking, flawed, yet loveable Jewish television producer living in Toronto. The character’s wide-ranging life and loves are the focus of “Barney’s Version,” which mixes absurd comedy and bittersweet drama.

Based on Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning novel, the film starts out comedic but slowly evolves into a warmer, even sentimental drama as Barney’s checkered life unfolds.

This smart film stands well on its own, though fans of the book may be disappointed in what is left out in the translation to big screen. What remains is a tale of a man who has his heart in the right place but may be his own worst enemy. The story tells of a complex trajectory through life, reflecting back on chosen paths, mistakes made and learning what really matters. Its complexity propels the film beyond Hollywood’s typical depiction of coming-of-age.


Giamatti’s winning performance as Barney – an irresistible mix of quirky and irascible – makes the film. However, the supporting cast shines as well, with strong turns from Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, Rachel Leferve and Scott Speedman.

We first meet a 65-year-old Barney, basking in comfort as the producer of a long-running Toronto soap opera. Despite his material success, Barney retains some working-class tastes – he’s an avid hockey fan who loves hanging out in a neighborhood bar.

Barney is still resentful of his ex-wife’s second husband, and is not above late-night prank phone calls to their house, much to the dismay of his grown daughter. But the film soon flashes back to Barney’s youth, as a 20-something hanging out in Rome with his college buddies in the ‘70s.

The film recaps Barney’s romantic history but also serves to trace his life story. At times, Barney’s everyman persona will trigger recognition, reflecting viewers’ own lives with romantic disappointments, changing friendships and family bonds, while other parts are uniquely his.

In Rome, Barney’s artsy but broke group of friends includes the unpredictable aspiring author Boogie (Speedman) and his blonde hippie first wife Clara (Leferve).

Driver plays Barney’s beautiful but self-absorbed second wife who, strangely, is never named. The second Mrs. P could not be more different from Clara and the film almost strays into caricature in portraying wife No. 2 and her wealthy, observant, snobbish family. They disapprove of Barney’s working-class background and his hockey-loving, hard-drinking tendencies. They also clash with Barney’s dad, wonderfully played by Hoffman. He’s a foul-mouthed, working-class ex-cop who sees anti-Semitism everywhere but never wavers in his love for his son.

After two marriages, Barney finally meets the woman of his dreams (Pike) – at the reception for his second wedding.

The film is always emotionally involving, thanks in part to the first-rate acting. The fact that the story does not follow a simple movie plot arc may mean that some viewers will find it a bit rambling at times. However, Barney’s zigzag path echoes the complexities of real life.

This wonderfully acted, touching film is worth seeing for Giamatti’s performance alone, but the charming, multifaceted story should win over audiences as well.

‘Barney’s Version’

Running time: 1:32 min

Rated: R, language, some sexual content

opens: Friday at Plaza Frontenac Cinema