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Originally published Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Barney's Version': The well-acted movie version lacks the wit of the book

A movie review of "Barney's Version," starring Paul Giamatti as a TV producer and hard-luck womanizer. It's based on a novel by Mordecai Richler and lost its wit on the way to the big screen.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Barney's Version,' with Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, Scott Speedman, Bruce Greenwood. Directed by Richard J. Lewis, from a screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. 132 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Several theaters.

Sometimes, when a movie emerges from a book, a crucial ingredient gets left out along the way. In the case of "Barney's Version," it's the wit. Based on a rambling, time-shifting and often very funny novel by Mordecai Richler, Richard J. Lewis' movie is rambling, time-shiftng and not often very funny; it's actually pretty sad. That's not to say the movie's bad — it's very well-acted and often compelling — but that it feels very different from the book; there's a freewheeling, rambunctious quality to Richler's prose that's missing on screen.

What's left is a fairly conventional drama about a man's three failed marriages and eventual struggle with Alzheimer's, made watchable by some energetic performances. Paul Giamatti, in a rare leading role, is Barney Panofsky, a Canadian television producer and hard-luck womanizer (he meets his third wife, for example, at his own wedding reception, with his current wife standing nearby in her bridal gown). Sporting red hair and a comfortable-looking paunch, Giamatti relaxes into the role like it's an armchair, his voice dropping down into an urgent purr when Barney's drunk (which he is, often). And his most charming chemistry in the film isn't with any of the actresses who play Barney's wives, but with Dustin Hoffman, who plays his father; the two men's scenes crackle with complex warmth and affection. (In a nice touch, Hoffman's look-alike son Jake is cast as Barney's son Michael.)

The casting balance is, in fact, thrown off a bit by the wives; the most vivid are the two we see the least. Rachelle Lefevre makes an early exit as Barney's doomed bohemian first wife; Minnie Driver, fast-talking and eye-popping, is the second Mrs. Panofsky, a high-strung woman for whom "life was an exam to be passed."

Rosamund Pike, as Barney's third wife and true love, goes a little far with her character's low, mellifluous voice (the character is a radio announcer); Miriam seems to live her life in the perpetual, sleepy calm of nighttime radio. You can see why Barney's drawn to her, and you can see why the filmmakers were drawn to this material, particularly a subplot involving the disappearance of a friend. (Why did they leave out the potentially funny — and very cinematic — trial?) Too bad they couldn't have given it just a little more zip.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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