The late Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler was so marvelously fecund that adapting one of his novels is almost tantamount to adapting Dickens. His books have so much character and incident that the necessary pruning for the screen is inevitably a diminishment.
And yet, what survives is often rich enough to warrant, however futile, the attempt. "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," which Richler himself adapted, is still the most extraordinary showcase ever mounted for Richard Dreyfuss's hyperkinetic talents.
"Barney's Version," based on Richler's 1997 novel, and starring Paul Giamatti in a shleppy-peppy role that is almost too comfortable for him, dispenses with that book's first-person approach, and so it seems somewhat flavorless. What's missing is not merely the narrator's voice, but an entire climate of feeling, a way of seeing, that poured through that voice.
We are left with a patchwork of sequences that often miss. Still, there's something to see. Giamatti's Barney Panofsky is an incorrigible scamp whose bohemian days in Rome (it was Paris in the novel) lead to a career in his native Montreal as a hack TV producer. Along the way he acquires a string of wives. The Second Mrs. P, as she is known, is played by Minnie Driver in full, shrill, Jewish-princess mode. If she had been made more sympathetic, the film would have traded easy laughs for a deeper rue when Barney, at their wedding, falls for one of the guests, Rosamund Pike's imperially pretty Miriam (eventual Wife No. 3).
Still, falling for the love of your life at your own wedding is a ripe comic subject. Giamatti plays up Barney's increasingly gaga entrancements with such brio that, against all reason, you find it impossible to hate him.
Giamatti is matched by Dustin Hoffman in a supporting role as Barney's retired cop father, a man who regards the world and everything in it as suspect. These two are so perfectly paired that, at times, it's like watching a great old vaudeville team. Hoffman is almost unique among his generation of actors. Instead of attempting to remain high in the saddle, he's settled quite nicely into a career as a character actor, which is maybe what Hoffman always was. He's a character actor posing as a leading man.
If director Richard J. Lewis and his screenwriter Michael Konyves had stuck with these two, and dispensed with the extended material about Barney's implication in the murder of his novelist friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), they might have wreaked havoc with the novel but, at the same time, they could still have preserved the rollicky essence of Richler's mindscape. Still, it's not often these days that you encounter a movie with so many larger-than-life characters that wasn't shot in 3-D. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)
More Monitor movie reviews: