Stories with jerks as protagonists can be challenging for an audience, but at least you should be able to count on a certain consistency to the jerkiness. Barney's Version presents us with a presumably redeemable a-hole, only it's never clear exactly what it is that should redeem him.
In this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's final novel, Paul Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a successful Montreal television producer who has lived a complicated life. In flashback, we see more than 30 years of that life, including his marriage to a girl he thinks he knocked up in Italy (Rachelle Lefebvre) and a second marriage to a rich Jewish girl (Minnie Driver) who's the predictable polar opposite of his first wife. But love doesn't really hit him until his second wedding reception, when he meets and falls instantly for Miriam (Rosamund Pike), who could be the one to give him stability.
Could be, but isn't, exactly. Barney's a complicated guy, a pragmatic sort who likes to hang with bohemian artists. He's casually inconsiderate to those near and dear to him, simultaneously devoted and easily distracted. Giamatti invests him with his typical affection for angry sad sacks, and does his damnedest to pull this mass of contradictions into a character whose fate will matter to an audience without the luxury of reading a novel to get deeper into his personality.
But the biggest frustration is that the fate that ultimately befalls Barney doesn't feel naturally tied in to the life journey we see - and that's saying nothing of the distracting subplot suggesting Barney may have gotten away with literal murder. Director Richard J. Lewis - a TV veteran making his first feature - has tackled a tricky character study in a way that tries to clean up rough edges that can't possibly be cleaned up enough. I don't know if I'm supposed to like Barney Panofsky, but after more than two hours, I still didn't really understand him.