Hoffman + Giamatti + ‘Barney’ = Canada’s Best at TIFF

Giamatti creates a self-destructive, loathful character, yet makes him someone to care about

Mordecai Richler was among Canada's most prolific writers, a gifted man with a knack for creating eccentric characters he made us care about despite their many flaws. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his 1974 screenplay adaptation of his most celebrated novel, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” in which a young Richard Dreyfuss gave an astonishing performance as the scheming, vicious Duddy, told "a man without land is nothing" and going after that land with an obsession that is pathological.

Richler wrote, and beautifully, about flawed men, and to the credit of Dreyfuss, we cared about the character — I daresay we even liked him, as his relentless energy kept him moving like a pinball in a machine, bouncing from obstacle to obstacle.

Much of the same happens in “Barney's Version,” a handsomely produced new Canadian film that will be declared among the finest made in this country.

There was a time when Canadian films needed American actors to sell the picture, George C. Scott in “The Changeling” and Jack Lemmon in “Tribute” spring to mind. But not so much anymore, and it is rewarding to see more and more American actors taking work in Canadian films by choice because they like the role, or they want to do the film.

That was certainly the case with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in this film, each outstanding in this sprawling character study that spans 40 years in the life of Barney (Giamatti), a low-end TV producer who in a sad and pathetic way is a self-destructive mess of a human being.

We meet Barney in his sixties after the divorce from the love of his life and watch him make a nasty phone call to her new husband in which he asks the man at 3 in the morning if he wants the photos of her nude when she was in prime. We learn later that the man had an angina attack after the call, which causes Barney to smile.

Through flashbacks we see his entire life unfold, beginning with his early days in Rome, where he marries his first wife, Clara (Rachel Lefevre), an unstable but  vibrant redhead, because he believes she is carrying his child. Turns out she has been a tad generous with her sexual favors and Barney is not the child's father. Worse, the baby is stillborn.

Angry, Barney lashes out and leaves her calling him from a hospital bed from which she cannot get up. She truly wants to reconcile, but Barney's best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) neglects to give him the message. Two days later, Barney finds her dead, having committed suicide.

Then comes his second wife (Minnie Driver), shrill and annoying, and he marries her even though he’s tired of being near her. At his wedding he meets the love of his life, Miriam (Rosamund Pike) and quickly begins to pursue her. He sees a way out when he’s betrayed by Boogie and shrill Driver, but he’s so stunned that Boogie would do such a thing to him that the two old friends fight, a gun goes off and Barney is put under the microscope for a police investigation into murder.

He marries Miriam and they have an idyllic life together until a petty jealousy sends him over the edge and during one of Miriam's trips to New York, he commits an act that will ruin their marriage. They divorce; lonely and deeply wounded, full of self loathing for ruining his marriage, Barney begins a downward spiral that is further complicated when he displays signs of Alzheimer's. Soon he is struggling to remember his own life.

Seamlessly weaving the past with the present, director Richard J. Lewis does a remarkable job transfering the dense to the screen. Nothing in his previous films, including” 1994’s Whale Music,” suggests his gifts for such a character tapestry as there is within this film.

And the acting.

Giamatti is superb creating the study of a man who wounds those he loves, and yet they forgive him because he is after all, Barney. This is why Giamatti is one of the greatest actors in movies today, because he can play this sort of character and still have the audience rooting for him. The moment his mind begins to fail him and we can see the pain in his eyes as he struggles to come to grips with what will happen to him is agonizing to watch.

Similarly, Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as his daffy father Izzy, a failed beat cop who like his son, drinks too much and alienates those around him. The two share a wonderful chemistry and actually seem to be a real father and son. How nice to see Hoffman back doing the sort of work we have come to expect from him.

Driver is excellent as the shrill second wife, constantly on the phone to her mother driving Barney crazy. The smile that appears on his face when he catches her cheating with Boogie is priceless. And Speedman, who would not have been my first choice for Boogie, is very good in the role, though he lacks some of the depth the other actors possess. But that’s a minor quibble with this fine film, one of the best of the festival and very likely the Genie Award winner for Best Picture in Canada.