'Barney's Version' long on character but short on plot

Paul Giamatti, left, and Dustin Hoffman portray father and son in "Barney's Vers

I'm thinking "Jewish picaresque" -- in film form, at least -- is an oxymoron.

Not that Mordecai Richler's "Barney's Version" isn't entertaining. It could hardly fail to be, with Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery and the cigars during a guided tour of his title character's love life and times.

Barney Panofsky's amorous retrospective (aka, "the true story of my wasted life") spans two continents, three wives and four decades. He's a profane, irascible, hard- drinking producer of schlock-TV shows for the aptly-named Totally Unnecessary Productions. In private life, he's a serial groom, constantly looking for Ms. Goodbride.

The first -- and briefest -- Mrs. Panofsky is a suicidal pseudo- shiksa, whose demise is hastened by the failure of Barney's boozer-bud Boogie (Scott Speedman) to deliver a desperate message for help.

The second Mrs. Panofsky is a shrewish- Jewish Canadian Princess (Minnie Driver), whom Barney catches in bed with Boogie.

But the third time's a charm, and the third Mrs. Panofsky is a true charmer named Miriam (Rosamund Pike). They met -- and he fell madly if inappropriately in love with her -- sometime around the Hava Nagila, during wedding reception No. 2.

We can see why the uxorious Barney goes gaga for wise, sensitive, ethereal Miriam. But why would she fall for a pushy, paunchy, obsessive-compulsive alcoholic? "Sobriety and regret are anxiously waiting up for you," she says, trying to fend off his initial crazy romantic assault. His one virtue is financial generosity, in general -- toward bad-boy Boogie, in particular. But other than that, there's nothing very lovable about Barney except his extravagant love of loving.

He gets even less lovable when Miriam's devotion expires and she dumps him for an ever-so-balanced, creative, "wonderfully attentive" public-radio producer named Blair (Bruce Greenwood). Crank-calling them in the middle of the night, Barney asks Blair to ask Miriam "what she wants me to do with these nude photos of her? Come to think of it, you might want 'em, if only to see what she looked like in her prime."

He also signs Blair up for a gay-porn mag subscription (mailed to his office) and onto an al-Qaida website (landing him on the permanent no-fly list). But Barney has a tormentor and serious problem of his own: the cop who's determined to prove him a murderer.

"Barney's Version," adapted from the late great Canadian author Mordecai Richler's (1931-2001) last and arguably best novel, is directed by Richard J. Lewis ("Whale Music") with high-spirited panache befitting the ethnic-stereotypical material. Mr. Richler's semi-autobiographical "Joshua Then and Now" (1985) dealt with similar issues, while "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974) -- for which he won a Best Screenplay Oscar -- also celebrated a lovably problematic Montreal Jew.

If Richard Dreyfuss was the perfect Duddy, which he was, Mr. Giamatti -- so terrific as the misfit oenophile in "Sideways" -- is the incarnation of Barney: rumpled, frumpy and grumpy. (Weren't they all among the Seven Dwarfs?)

Ms. Pike's Miriam is a strange, otherworldly gem of a portrayal. Mr. Greenwood's Blair makes for Barney's ideal antithesis -- unctuously smiling and holding forth in fine vapid vegan fashion. And you gotta love Ms. Driver's over-the-top burlesque. Her hilarious reaction, when caught in delicto flagrante, is memorable proof that the best defense is a good offense.

You gotta love Dustin Hoffman even more. He plays Barney's mensch of a dad Izzy, who at the wedding dinner tells the bride's mother, "The chicken is great!" "It's fish," she replies. Mr. Hoffman's real-life son Jake plays Barney's son Michael -- looking much like his father in "The Graduate."

Director Lewis makes good photographic use of Montreal and good musical use of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" and "Dance Me to the End of Love." But Mr. Richler's book and Michael Konyves' screenplay have major melodramatic flaws, notably in the final "serious" act, which feels artificially grafted onto the much lighter material that precedes it. The shift and balance between comedy and tragedy are tough to pull off.

Which brings us full circle, back to Jewish "picaresque and poignant" and today's pedantic literary refresher: A picaro is a clever Spanish rogue, and picaresque is a satiric genre -- the adventures of such lowborn heroes, outwitting their foolish, highborn rivals. Cervantes' Quixote, Fielding's Tom Jones and Twain's Huck Finn are good examples. But the cynical-sentimental tale at hand takes an overlong 134 minutes and never quite gels. Barney is no heroic Quixote, Miriam is Dulcinea but not Aldonza, and there's no redemptive comic-relief Sancho Panza in the mix.

And then there's the ending -- a poorly executed twist, attempting to solve the thin murder "mystery" by borrowing a bizarre urban legend.

Well, hey, not everything is transferable from the page. Barney's ironic spirit comes through pretty much intact, and Mr. Richler would've savored the ironies of the film's reception:
Mr. Giamatti won the Golden Globe award for Best Actor last month. This month, the suspense mounts as to whether "Barney's Version" will win the sole Academy Award for which it's nominated in that breathlessly awaited category -- Best Make-Up.

May we have, rather than push, the envelope please?

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