The late Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) was a bellicose practitioner of Jewish fiction in the manner of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, with a mad helping of Joseph Heller. So it comes as a big letdown that director Richard J. Lewis (who made Whale Music and a whole lot of CSI) has crafted such a mushy pudding out of Richler's 1997 final novel. Barney's Version misses every opportunity for raucous, picaresque fun that the book throws its way, while squandering a wealth of transatlantic performing talent led by Paul Giamatti. He mugs away gamely as the titular unhero, a Montreal producer of schlock television whom we meet adjusting poorly to geezer status and reflecting, with insufficient Richleresque bile and many artless flashbacks, on his magnificently botched life. Regrets, Barney's had a few, leading with the loss of his adored third wife, Miriam (a coolly intelligent Rosamund Pike), and his ambiguous role in the death of a boozy literary mentor (Scott Speedman). Richler was a gleeful provocateur who wrote in funny, excoriating, entertainingly hectic prose and had passion to burn. Somnolently paced and emotionally constricted, Barney's Version never finds a rhythm or a theme to call its own. Worse yet, it strips the novel of its rich sense of place, and thus of Richler's profane love for his beloved, bitterly divided Quebec.
Giamatti and Hoffman (right) as son and father.
Opens at Harvard Exit and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 18. Rated R. 132 minutes.