Personal epics are usually only entertaining when the central character is someone who admirably fights against some societal norm, or beats the system despite all expectations. Comparatively speaking, Barney’s Version is engaging because of its extremely flawed title character and the eccentricities that surround him, even though his story strays far from any conventional heroics.
As we randomly jump around Barney Panofsky’s (Paul Giamatti) life and peculiar decision-making, perhaps the most striking realization is the rare charisma that Barney embodies. He’s not especially kind, charming, or easy to be around, but his brand of blunt is magnetic. When he does say something considerate or complimentary, it holds that much more weight. His singular finicky tendency accounts for much of how he’s able to maintain relations with any or everyone.
In essence, Version is the culmination of Barney’s unglamorous interactions with a variety of women, so we watch Barney go through poorly chosen relationships that seem to occur because they fall in his lap. First in the 1970′s in Italy with the brash, high-heeled hippie Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) who tricks him into marriage by telling him he’s the father of her baby bump. When it’s established that the stillborn is no relation, and he’s faced with a visit from a father-in-law with no sense of boundaries wishing to commisserate over Clara’s suicide, he hops back to the United States to produce television with a cousin.
Said cousin introduces him to the eventual Mrs. Panofsky #2 (Minnie Driver), a hyper chatty Jewish girl with even less familial boundaries who is exacting in her expectations of his hygiene and behavior. During their wedding, he becomes entranced by Miriam (Rosamund Pike) whom he chases after with gifts and phone calls while continuing to act the part of “husband”. These journeys are set against the accusing backdrop of a detective who repeatedly appears on the news claiming Barney is a murderer; he’s so obsessed with a missing person case that he writes a book on Barney’s talent for disrespecting anyone who might care about him. Some comic, and touching, relief is provided in scenes where Barney talks to his father, played by a heavily New York-accented Dustin Hoffman.
While the acting and cinematography of Barney are superb, the narrative takes far too much time with simple moments in several sections, thereby missing out on spending time on circumstances that could have been more interesting. The wedding during which Barney meets Miriam is excruciatingly long, especially compared with how clipped and quick the journey through parenthood is taken. The lopsided focus doesn’t add any character depth. Nevertheless, the actors handle themselves quite well, considering the repetitive and over-expository material they have to work with. The over two-hour film feels never-ending.
Despite the deficiencies in the script, everyone on screen works effectively hard to build a full story of a fairly average human being who can’t seem to appreciate his own life, much less those around him. Barney’s Version may not be particularly original, but it deserves respect for the way it gives each character a measure of importance, enabling some reflection on how the smallest act and word can change life’s course.