A rogue’s tale
Paul Giamatti won Golden Globe as lovable rogue Barney
You might say that the eponymous Barney is a loveable rogue—roguish, for sure, and loveable, maybe.
He’s played by Paul Giamatti, and that pretty much guarantees a goodly measure of charm, however rumpled. But Bernard “Barney” Panofsky, the guy who’s ostensibly giving us his version of a wildly erratic life story, is not all that easy to like.
Fortunately for the story and for this film version of Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel, a small host of intriguing and comparably erratic characters, women as well as men, form at least temporary bonds with this rather disheveled anti-hero. The sardonic comedy of those variously flawed relationships—by turns ribald, caustic, farcical, bittersweet—gives this tale its most accessible appeal.
Three ill-fated marriages and one fatal misadventure loom large in the exuberantly woozy musings of Barney’s quasi-picaresque autobiography. And his relationship with his father, a rowdy, rambunctious Montreal police detective played here by Dustin Hoffman, is one of the story’s cornerstones as well.
Giamatti, Hoffman and Scott Speedman (as Barney’s best pal, a roistering writer called Boogie) provide three varieties of comic rascalry, with each of them adding in distinctive ways to the film’s increasingly ironic and bittersweet humor. And the film’s casual indulgence of their somewhat self-deluding antics is countered at least in part by the bracing insights emerging via two of Barney’s wives—the antic “second Mrs. P” (Minnie Driver) and the Olympian Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
Barney’s recklessness may be a key to his peculiar charm, but it’s also part of his undoing. A compulsively free-spirited rascal, he is both wildly romantic and habitually insensitive. His loveable roguery is both a blessing and a curse.
Giamatti deserves the Golden Globe he won for his performance here, but this is really an ensemble piece in some crucial ways. Barney would likely be unbearable were it not for his interplay with his father, his wives and Boogie. And Giamattti’s performance works best in scenes that pair him with one of those other standouts—Driver, Pike, Speedman, Hoffman.
Even with the fine work of those key players (and Bruce Greenwood and Saul Rubinek in smaller parts as well), the film doesn’t entirely solve its credibility problems, nor is it able to steer clear of the temptation of sentimental bathos in this version of the story. I haven’t read Richler’s novel, but I suspect that this film (directed by Richard J. Lewis from an adaptation by Michael Konyves) suffers in part from a familiar limitation in movie versions of novels—an emphasis on eventfulness at the expense of nuanced “narrative voice.”