There's something comforting about Paul Giamatti's name on a cast list. If not necessarily a seal of quality for an entire film, you know there's going to be something worthwhile ahead, even with some of the more abysmal titles on his CV.
Granted, there wasn't much he could do to salvage Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes ("What can I say... we tried," he told me in an interview a few years back, diplomatically hinting that Burton suffered from some studio shackling). And granted, I haven't seen Thunderpants; it's possible I may never do so. But even in the odd instances where he's doing it for the money, he never cuts corners, regardless of whatever other crud he might be surrounded by. Barney's Version is one of the good ones, a film that, while far from perfect, reaches for the stars and, thanks largely to Giamatti's ever-reliable charm, almost gets there.
Adapted from Mordecai Richter's 1997 novel (I won't pretend to have read it), it spans 40 somewhat shambolic years in the life of Montreal TV producer Barney Panofsky, who experiences more than his fair share of marriages, divorces, illnesses and deaths. There's certainly a lot going on, and it often caves in under the weight of its own ambition, with characters waltzing in and out and smaller story strands being crowbarred in all over the place.
The first half in particular hurtles through major events, leaving us with half-baked portraits of people we don't get to know well enough to care about, and the film wants to be too many things, starting off like a second-rate murder-mystery then veering into screwball rom-com territory before ending up positively profound.
But while not all the moments or characters ring true - Minnie Driver, while entertaining, is especially one-dimensional as Barney's ditsy second wife - there's a pounding, often broken heart that permeates it all. Barney has, essentially, good values and good intentions; he just happens to be rather adept at self-sabotage, and Giamatti, surely the king of endearing (new word alert) shmuckness, fits him like a well-worn glove, giving a passionate performance that holds this sprawling, inconsistent and jarringly episodic opus together, ensuring the sum is markedly more than its parts.
He makes you feel for Barney even when he's being an absolute jerk, his cruelty coming from a place of love, regret and confusion - one scene, where he explodes at one of his actresses ("Some idiots keep printing 30 year old pictures of you in bikinis so old Bolsheviks can have something to jerk off to and you're going to fly halfway around the world because of it?"), starts off deliciously nasty before becoming heart-achingly sad. This is a film as messy and uneven as its protagonist, but by the time it had finished - gracefully, touchingly - I felt like I'd been there with him for those 40 years, clambering over life's obstacles and fucking things up.
Barney's Version is out 28 January
Words by Alex Godfrey