Earlier this week, Arcade Fire won the Grammy for album of the year, a fine achievement and one that sanctions Montreal's place on the indie rock map. But Arcade Fire, most of whose members are non-Quebecois transplants, is a little late to the Montreal counterculture party.
From the 1960s onward, two Anglophone natives, both Jewish romantics, did much to give Montreal its air of Continental literary dissipation. There's Leonard Cohen, who evidently still lives there, and there's the late journalist, novelist and polemicist Mordecai Richler, who died in 2001. Richler is associated with Montreal the way Saul Bellow is associated with Chicago, and Philip Roth with New Jersey. If Richler doesn't have quite the same literary stature, he more than compensated by being a voluble—and apparently irritating—presence in Canadian culture.
Barney's Version, a new film by Richard J. Lewis, is a meaty, appealing and verbosely funny adaptation of Richler's last novel. It's an apologia by a character called Barney Panofsky, a boozy, sweaty, ostensible fuckup who, despite being played by Paul Giamatti—he of the furry, rotund features and gloomy, dyspeptic temperament—is nonetheless strikingly successful in business and even more so with women.
"Barney's version" is just that—Barney's recollection of his semiscandalous life, going back to his early adulthood among the bohemians in Rome in the 1970s and continuing through three marriages and a booming career in television production. The occasion for this movie-length reflection, replete with Cohen songs, is the forthcoming publication of an exposé by a vainglorious police officer (the usual Irish thug) who believes Barney to be guilty of the long-ago murder of a close friend.
The murder story turns out to be a bit of a red herring, for what we really get is a highly enjoyable and profane journey through four decades of a dissolute yet big-hearted life. Barney's first marriage, in Rome to an unstable, sexually promiscuous free spirit (played by Rachelle Lefevre), ends in humiliation and tragedy, while his second marriage, to a well-connected Jewish princess (Minnie Driver, in fine form) helps launch his career. But it's the third union, to Miriam, that proves to be the love of his life. Miriam (an initially unrecognizable Rosamund Pike) is a slob's fantasy: She doesn't mind his booze and cigars and she appreciates his hockey fanaticism. Given such an unlikely character, Pike at first has little to work with but a beatific smile and a measured, dignified posture, but as Barney enters his physical and mental decline, Miriam's status in the story, and the relationship, is enlarged.
Although Giamatti doesn't need help carrying a film, Barney's Version contains juicy character roles, including Bruce Greenwood's amusing turn as Barney's eventual rival, a smug, vegan teetotaler and exercise buff. The film, too, is something of a gathering of the Canuck filmmaking tribe: Several of the country's top filmmakers—Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Denys Arcand (but where's Guy Maddin?)—all make cameos.
In this rambling film about a sloppy, gruff but sentimental loser who somehow keeps winning, the biggest casting coup is Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney's father, Izzy, a retired police detective and unrepentant horndog.
It's during the film's central set piece—the lavish wedding between Barney and his second wife, which is where he also meets his third wife—that we come to understand the appeal of Barney's compulsive earnestness and reckless impulsiveness. He stands up to his snobby father-in-law in magnificent fashion, just moments before he abandons the party to chase after the woman who will become his third wife. With a mixture of humor, compassion, ribaldry, overindulgence and coarseness, Barney's messy life makes for oddly inspiring viewing, even if we're unlikely to emulate it.