Memory is a tricky thing, and that appears to be the main point of this rambling, unfocused but still enjoyable comedy-drama. Paul Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a slightly nastier version of the cynical schlub that’s become his stock-in-trade. He’s an ageing TV producer who is prompted to look back over his life, three failed marriages and all, when a book is published revisiting an unsolved 30-year old murder case involving Barney.
Adapted from Mordecai Richler’s novel and directed by Richard J Lewis, the film is essentially Barney’s case for the defence, with television director Lewis attempting to gradually shift the film’s tone from broad comedy to serious drama. Unfortunately, he lacks the grace to pull it off effectively. The film begins as a comic murder-mystery, but that aspect of the story fizzles as it shifts into Woody Allen-esque relationship drama. This central section is where Lewis is most successful, achieving an effective balance of observational character comedy and poignant drama, and getting brilliant performances from Giamatti and Rosamund Pike. But in its final third the director suddenly steers the film into tearjerker territory, undoing much of the actors’ good work by drawing more overtly heartstring-tugging performances from them.
The film is very well cast though, and Dustin Hoffman is particularly entertaining as Barney’s mischievous father, but the story’s central theme – memory and perspective – has been much more insightfully investigated by Charlie Kaufman in both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.
Barney's Version is in cinemas now. This review first published in The List magazine.