Barney is a schlubish jerk who slogs his way through three marriages and eventually pays a price for his boorish behaviour. His Version is the almost comical, occasionally touching tale of those three marriages and the mess that surrounded them. As played by Paul Giamatti, Barney is a character with considerable cinematic potential. But as directed by Richard J. Lewis, Barney's Version is an ill-timed affair with predictable musical cues and a narrow emotional perspective. Lewis deserves credit for extracting such a fine performance from Giamatti, who hits some memorable notes along the way, but the story is told in such a manipulative manner that it fails to be meaningfully moving.
In its early stages, Barney's Version is especially frustrating (almost despicable at times) as it introduces us to Barney's first wife, the fire-haired Clara (Rachelle Lefevre). Occupying only a few short minutes of screen time, Clara is depicted as a thoroughly unlikable person, a hopeless waif with little narrative purpose. Lefevre's brief performance is quite awful, but so is the character she's playing. It's not an instant problem to have an unlikable character in the movie (most of the characters in the movie are easy to root against), but Clara is the victim of such transparent design that she's more of a distraction than anything.
She is carelessly constructed so that we can collectively hate her off the screen, which doesn't exactly signal a richness of character-driven conflict to follow. I cannot say if Clara's unfortunate characterization originates in Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel upon which this movie is based, but this filmed Version certainly suffers from a simplistic script by Michael Konyves. Lewis's scattered direction doesn't do the movie many favours, either. Clara is just one small problem early on, but she represents the kind of blatant dramatic manipulation that ultimately mars the movie.
Things only get worse with Barney's second wife, a loud, self-absorbed, and apparently nameless woman played by Minnie Driver. Once again, the character is written in such specifically irritating terms that it's clear we're expected to hate her and therefore anticipate Barney's inevitable third wife. Driver gives it her all and makes the most of the horrible role, but it's never believable that she would be interested in Barney or even that Barney would be interested in her. Like Clara, she exists only to make Barney look slightly less loathsome in comparison, which marks another juvenile misstep in the narrative.
With the arrival of Barney's third wife, the movie begins to stumble into more balanced territory. We're supposed to like Miriam (a very charming Rosamund Pike, reaping the benefits of the one female role that is not poorly written), so it comes as no surprise that she's everything Barney's first and second wives are not. Miriam is likable (of course), talks about some things that interest Barney (her knowledge of a cigar brand is an easy indicator that she's Barney's type), and she manages to hold a conversation without nagging Barney the entire time. She also speaks at a normal volume, so we know that she's going to stick around.
At first, Miriam's likability is as obvious as the unlikable qualities that define Barney's pair of previous wives, but the character, aided by Pike's performance, manages to grow into someone with actual depth and dimension. Barney's Version begins to settle down around the midway point and the movie is certainly more satisfying in this slightly matured stage than in its first half. Giamatti and Pike have some semblance of chemistry and their very good performances (easily among the movie's brightest highlights) lend this tale of love and loss some much-needed dramatic energy.
Further positives include portions of Pasquale Catalano's musical score, which features a delightfully whimsical series of refreshingly touching notes, and a whole pile of cameo appearances by a wide variety of Canadian icons. Considering how steeped in Canadian culture this movie is (hockey never plays a major role in the narrative and yet it remains a rather ubiquitous obsession), the decision to cast American and British actors in most of the major roles, while filling the background with major contributors to Canadian entertainment, is both fun and humorous.
But as likable as these flourishes may be, Barney's Version remains a difficult movie to fully embrace, due to its wobbly first half and continually controlled emotions. Even when Giamatti and Pike are able to lend the movie a rare glimpse of genuinely passionate feelings, director Lewis is always there, omnipresent, ready to announce a dramatic spike through a swelling of music. Despite what the movie gets right (and that's enough to prevent it from completely falling apart), it's too emotionally sloppy to ever be as moving as it intends to be and too awkwardly timed to ever be as funny as it wants to be. Of course, this is merely my version. Barney can keep his.