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Acclaimed Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last and arguably greatest novel, “Barney’s Version,” has been transformed into a highly entertaining and arguably the most satisfying Richler screen adaptation to date.
The impeccably cast confessional, with a pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti leading the way, nimbly traverses the four decades in its lead character’s eventful life with considerable exuberance, visual flair and, ultimately, grace.
Produced by Robert Lantos, who brought Richler’s “Joshua Then and Now” to the big screen in 1985, and assuredly directed by Richard J. Lewis (“Whale Music”), the picture undoubtedly will draw kudos in its home and native land and likely beyond, buoyed by that virtuouso Giamatti performance.
Not since Richard Dreyfuss so capably inhabited the title role in 1974’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” has a Richler (the author died in 2001) lead character been brought to life as effectively as Giamatti’s irascible, rumpled Barney Panofsky.
Hard to like but tougher to hate, Panofsky relives his warts-and-all memoirs, otherwise known as “the true story of my wasted life,” encompassing several countries and an equal number of wives.
There’s his early, bohemian existence in Rome with Mrs. Panofsky No. 1, the free-spirited Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), whom Barney marries when she becomes pregnant.
It ends, and Barney returns to his Montreal home — Richler’s signature stomping grounds — getting a job at a cheesy TV production company and meeting and soon marrying the Second Mrs. P., a chatty, pampered Jewish princess (amusingly played by Minnie Driver).
To say the union is doomed is an understatement, given that he proceeds to meet the love of his life, the elegant, sophisticated Miriam (a luminous Rosamund Pike), right smack in the middle of his wedding reception.
With the support of his raucous cop father, Izzie (an absolutely terrific Dustin Hoffman), he eventually persuades Miriam to become the Third Mrs. P. and the mother of his two kids. (Barney’s son, played by Jake Hoffman, is a dead ringer for his real-life dad, Dustin, circa “The Graduate.”)
Considering Barney’s lifelong penchant for insensitivity, he’s still a long way off from a happily-ever-after ending.
As he demonstrated with his roles in “Sideways” and “American Splendor,” Giamatti excels at playing difficult curmudgeons, but in “Barney’s Version,” he also possesses a stubborn vulnerability that’s indispensable to the film’s palpable poignancy.
His relationships to his fellow cast members are alternately comical, tragic and tender but somehow never quite as genuine as the bond he has with the elder Hoffman.
Working from a tidy but still expansive adaptation by Michael Konyves, Lewis integrates the various time passages as smoothly and efficiently as those lively character interactions.
After playing New York so many times, it’s nice to see Montreal get to play itself, and the city’s richly unique milieu, along with that of Rome and New York, has been lavishly captured by Guy Dufaux’s vibrant cinematography and Claude Pare’s warm, earthy production design.
As an added bonus, smaller roles are filled by a who’s who of the Canadian film industry, including cameos by David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan and Ted Kotcheff.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Serendipity Point Films, Fandango, Lyla Films Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver
Director: Richard J. Lewis
Screenwriter: Michael Konyves
Executive producer: Mark Musselman
Producer: Robert Lantos
Director of photography: Guy Dufaux
Production designer: Claude Pare
Music: Pasquale Catalano
Costume designer: Nicoletta Massone
Editor: Susan Shipton
No rating, 132 minutes
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