Richard J. Lewis
The Review: If you were making a list of people who could make unsympathetic and unlovable characters still appealing, then Paul Giamatti would surely be near the top of that list. His standout turn in Sideways from a few years back may have helped in that cause; his neurotic and uptight Miles still managed to be captivating. So it’s maybe no surprise that, when looking to put on screen Mordecai Richler’s novel about a man and his many marriages, that the makers turned to Giamatti. Barney Panofsky is a man who distrusts and despises the world around him, and generally goes out of his way to tell friends and colleagues what he thinks of them, in no uncertain terms; yet he’s managed to snare (or be snared by) three wives along the way. Having Paul Giamatti in the role makes that prospect instantly more believable.
The three wives in question, who we meet over the course of the film’s extended narrative, are Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. Barney is drawn to each one for different reasons, and in that the narrative almost becomes a compare and contrast process, as we see the different reasons that people make a life commitment and their effect on Barney each time. Lefevre has the slightest of the three roles in the production, and Pike the meatiest, but each has a sizeable impact on Barney’s character and help to paint the picture of how he becomes the man he is at the end. Pike’s is undoubtedly the strongest performance of the three, although the movie has to work hard in each case to make the set-ups believable, mainly thanks to Barney’s personality.
Apart from Barney and his wives, the supporting cast is packed with familiar names and faces, Dustin Hoffman being the most prominent. When the narrative isn’t entirely focussed on the three wives’ tales, there’s a preoccupation with family and the legacy that others have had on Barney and in turn his effect on them. The film is at least enjoyable for all of these parts of its running time, but generally the scenes involving a wife are the most compelling. There’s a real depth of feeling and there are strong themes of behaviour, love and loyalty, each running through each tale and inviting the viewer to compare and contrast, but taken on their own these strands are as good a romantic comedy drama as you’ll have seen in many a year.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that, at regular intervals, one of the smaller subplots actually ends up overshadowing the whole film. The structure of the book plays on the unreliable narrator idea, but the film has a more conventionally flashback structure and so a potential murder mystery is used to cause Barney to review his life from the point of view his older self. But the whole whodunnit is so completely at odds both tonally and structurally with everything else and so unbelievable in its execution that it unbalances everything, and the fact that the resolution feels like it’s been casually lifted from the opening of a Paul Thomas Anderson film means the whole strand is distracting from beginning to end. A shame, as the rest of the film is so likeable and Giamatti deserves to be centre stage in a hit, but sadly this will only be remembered as a partial success.
Why see it at the cinema: For me, Rosamund Pike almost naked on a bed justified the price of admission, but I’m sadly turning into my own version of a dirty old man with the passing of time. Enough of that. For regular audiences, Giamatti is great, and if you can overlook the murder subplot there’s enough laughs and tears here to thoroughly enjoy the collective experience.
The Score: 7/10