Paul Giamatti is terrific in this not-unimpressive first feature film from TV director Richard J. Lewis, adapted from the book by Mordecai Richler. In fact, Giamatti is so terrific that he was considered a major contender for a Best Actor Oscar, which didn’t happen, but probably should have. It’s certainly a good enough performance to overcome any shortcomings the film has in its attempt to tell a relatively complex—certainly drawn-out—story in a little over two hours.
Giamatti is Barney Panofsky, who, when we first see him, is the ill-tempered producer of what appears to be a very bad TV show. (It’s called O’Malley of the North, which probably says it all). His life is turned upside down by the publication of a book by a retired cop that brings up an old allegation that Barney murdered his best friend (Scott Speedman). Barney’s version—which consists not only of what really happened (part of which is not even clear to Barney), but the bulk of his adult life—is told in response to this book. The problem with Barney’s version of anything is that his memory is unreliable (we later find out he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s). But that—at least as it relates to discovering his character—may also cause him to tell us more than he means to. As to the event itself, the movie suggests what happened, but this occurs so late in Barney’s life that it’s unclear whether he understands it—something that could be said about his entire life.
The film follows Barney by tracing the story of his romantic life, starting with his marriage to Clara (Rachelle Lafevre), a painter in Rome. This is perhaps the least successful stretch of the film, in part because as Carrie Rickey puts it in her review of the film, it is an indication that the film tends to go by “too fast to process.” I think, however, this is deliberate—because, the fact is that Barney’s life itself goes by too fast for him to process. What makes the sequence less successful is that it’s so apart from the rest of the film that it feels out of place—and it fails to illuminate Barney’s swift transition from bohemian youth to a man settling for a very bourgeois position in Montreal, where he marries the caricatured “Second Mrs. P.” (Minnie Driver), based entirely on the size of her bosom and her bank account.
This second marriage is truly grounded in nothing beyond the two aforementioned charms. Not only does the wedding party degenerate into hostility with the bride’s family—they don’t like Barney’s father Izzy’s (Dustin Hoffman) crudeness or his cigar smoking—but it’s here that Barney meets the love of his life, Miriam (the always splendid Rosamund Pike). In her he finds a sympathetic ear and is so immediately smitten that he leaves the reception to pursue her to the train to propose to her. But, of course, it’s not that simple, even though he will one day succeed in getting her.
The question then isn’t so much if he will screw this up, but how and when he’ll manage it. Barney himself never sees that he is driven by a compulsion to ruin things. What’s remarkable about the film—and Giamatti’s performance—is that we actually care what happens to him. We become drawn to him—much like the women in his life—in spite of his obvious shortcomings. Or maybe it’s actually at least a little because of them. In much the same way, it’s very hard to really like the man (Bruce Greenwood) into whose arms he drives Miriam, despite his equally obvious qualities. All this underscores the idea that we admire people for their qualities, and that it’s equally possible that we love them both in spite of and because of their flaws.
In the end, what we end up with is an unreliable account of the life of a man whose appeal remains enigmatic, even when the blanks are filled in. It makes for a very satisfying film. Rated R for language and some sexual content.