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A Shot at Love with Paul Giamatti
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14 Jan 2011 02:08 PM EST

- by David Guzman, Senior Writer

Alvy Singer, that insecure romantic that Woody Allen plays in “Annie Hall,” probably would’ve felt at home in “Barney’s Version,” which finds its happiness in packages of misery. He also might’ve gotten along well with Barney (Paul Giamatti), whose penchant for flashbacks and flirting would’ve given them plenty to talk about. That Barney is also Jewish seems incidental, though, and while the dark humor in “Barney’s Version” shares a kinship with Allen’s shtick, the hero at its center has a personal story that’s responsible for turning him into the man he is. No two romantics are the same, after all.

Of course, if you look at his record when it comes to love, it’s anyone’s guess how Barney became a romantic at all. Though he and his first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) enjoyed a picturesque wedding in Rome, he saw the whole thing as a pro forma courtesy for getting her pregnant. His friends tease him about giving up bachelorhood, but for as tepid as his love is for her, he believes that they have an agreeable marriage, one he treasures well after it meets its abrupt end.

Some time later, he takes another stab at marriage with his second wife (Minnie Driver), only to have it dawn on him at the wedding that she’s something of a pill. In fact, the people in the room he spends the most time with – other than the bartender (Larry Day), who must love having him around – are Boogie (Scott Speedman), a novelist who’s finding it difficult to get his manuscript about a self-aware vagina published, and his dad (Dustin Hoffman), an ex-cop who considers a gun a wedding present. Before the night’s through, though, Barney realizes true romance – only it comes in the form of a well-wisher named Miriam (Rosamund Pike) and not the bride who has no clue that he’s just left her heart standing at the altar.

There are times when Barney seems like a one-note character, but Giamatti knows how to play him in different keys, and even finds another side to him when new challenges develop in old age. His relationship with Miriam is the center of the film’s universe, and though it’s nice to see them get the performances they deserve, let no one accuse the supporting cast of phoning it in. As a matter of fact, it’s a shame these characters couldn’t get more screen time – especially his dad, who’s easy to love even before he stands up to a racist detective (Mark Addy) obsessed with digging up evidence that links Barney to a homicide. It says something about a movie’s focus when the hero’s involvement in another character’s death isn’t even the most interesting thing about it. La-di-da, la-di-da.

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