For a story that’s haunted by a murder mystery, Barney’s Version is understated to the point of mundanity. The focus of this feature debut of director Richard J. Lewis is, you might have guessed, Barney (Paul Giammati), a Canadian schlub who drinks too much, watches too much hockey, and doesn’t seem to care if he pisses people off, unless it’s the best of his three wives.
Spanning a few decades, the film, based on novel by Mordecai Richler, is simply but captivatingly a picarequese of Barney’s life in Rome (when he was young bohemian thing) and Montreal (where he became a curmudgeonly TV producer).
His wives ran a spectrum: His first (Rachelle Lefevre) was a crazy artist who roped Barney into marriage when she became pregnant. His second (Minnie Driver) was a perfectionist and controlling Jewish girl who felt she landed a great man — until he meets his third wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), at their wedding and proceeds to torpedo the marriage from there. (Miriam proves to be his soulmate, but, sadly, Barney’s still Barney.)
There’s a cap to Barney’s story that renders what came before it especially poignant, but even without the denouement, Barney’s workaday escapades and many screw-ups are compelling, thanks in no small part to Giammati’s irascible yet sentimental performance in which he dials down his neurotic tremolo in favor of a more human-voiced crankiness. (Which, incidentally, won him a Golden Globe.)
What prompts Barney to tell his story? An investigator who knew him in his younger days is publishing an autobiography that accuses our protagonist of not just being a jerk but of killing his best friend. Yet this death is treated as a mere footnote, nearly lost — though not detrimentally so — among the equally compelling minutiae of Barney’s life.