Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) has a son that refuses to speak to him, a daughter that dutifully suffers his company, three ex-wives (one of whom he is still desperately and hopelessly in love with) who want him dead, a TV company that is going down the pan after decades of churning out utter tripe, and a drunken ex-cop who is still trying to pin a thirty year old murder on him… life is not great. But drowning under this cacophony of slurs and mistakes is a pained man who can’t quite pin down the actual, tangible points at which he went wrong. Well what we are about to hear… is Barney’s version.
Barney begins life – as far as this story is concerned – as the square, Jewish friend of a rag-tag band of American travellers screwing and doping their way around Italy in the 1960s. He marries a “conversation piece” hippy that he has seemingly knocked up, but when she miscarries a mixed race baby he refuses to speak to her, and finds her dead in her apartment a few days later. Barney escapes back to Canada to marry a “nice Jewish girl” (Driver) and work in the film business. But on his wedding night he falls heels-over-head in love with another woman – the woman he will lie beside for eternity – Miriam (Pike).
His marriage to the Jewish princess is a disaster from the off, and when he finally finds her humping his heroin-addict best friend Boogie (Speedman), he can barely contain his delight at his impending, financially risk-free, divorce. But he cannot forgive Boogie, and in a drunken fight he accidentally lets off a few rounds from his gun, and Boogie disappears into the lake behind their cottage, never to be seen again. With a hot-headed cop (Addy) on his tale, Barney heads straight to New York to woo Miriam, and finally seems to have found happiness… until he eventually manages to screw that up too.
This adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel flitters between bizarre tragic-comedy and straight drama. There are quirky layers to Richler’s writing – e.g. Barney’s company is called ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’ – that bring the film into line with the likes of Sideways, American Splendor (no coincidence who starred in both those films) and Election. Most of the film thrives off this impossibly bizarre and satirical subject matter; there is a flippancy and incorrigibility to the style and pace of the storytelling that matches perfectly with our lovable, pig-headed hero.
But this film tries to be a bit more grown up than its ‘quirky indie’ brethren… and it doesn’t quite manage it. The vast timescale means that this film needs to be a bit more patient in its pacing, and unfortunately there are points at which the tragic-comic tone collapses into melodrama with a reliance on clichéd ‘standing in an autumnal graveyard while violins weep through the soundtrack’ moments that feel Totally Unnecessary.
Around award season, it is important to take note of a few other elements of a film that sometimes go unnoticed. The make-up is absolutely wonderful – understated and impeccable, and when Giamatti appears on screen at his actual age he somehow looks abnormally young because we have become so used to seeing him as a natural old man. The ‘performance by an English actress’ is also essential at this time of year, and Ros amund Pike has delivered a career best performance which may garner her some attention at the BAFTAs (although one doubts it will be enough to make Los Angeles sit up and take note).