Who's In It: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Rachelle Lefevre
The Basics: Barney is a loveable jerk. Well, sort of loveable. Mostly a jerk. We see him as he hits his drunken middle 60s re-living and regretting the past. His ex-wives, his dead friends, his wild youthful years, his foul, loudmouthed anger and anti-social behavior, his lack of purpose besides making a lot of money, his fear. And because Barney is played by Paul Giamatti, the character's bastardly qualities are tempered by that actor's innate ability to make you feel like all the guy really needs is a good cuddle, maybe some puppy therapy.
What's the Deal: This movie is based on the late Canadian writer Mordecai Richlers' novel. He was, like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, a novelist who explored the lives of difficult Jewish men and he didn't like sentimentality. And some of that cantankerous edge is still here. Just not enough. It's like the movie knows that Barney is repellent and doesn't want to alienate you, so it comes wrapped up in thick cozy blankets to keep you on board. If there's such a thing as a filmmaker treating its subject matter too affectionately, then this is that, and it makes you wonder why you should even keep watching.
Biggest Complaint: And this is just a technical beef I have with any movie that deals with a lot of flashbacks, especially flashbacks to thirty years ago--GET YOUR WIGS TOGETHER, MAN. I can watch middle-aged Paul Giamatti playing twentysomething and suspend my disbelief all by myself. I don't need weird smoothing makeup and fake, sweaty, disco toupees. In fact, that stuff makes me forget what the characters are even saying. All I remember from that kind of sequence is the feeling that no one wanted to speak up and say it all looked like a pile of crazy.
Why It's Sort of Worth Looking At Anyway: The actors. You see a movie like, say, Little Fockers, and you're watching the people on screen all come off like they've signed a contract while holding their nose and they're just doing time until payday. It's a grimace trying desperately to form a persuasive smile. But here, you can tell that everyone on board is in love with the material and overjoyed to be playing complicated, genuinely flawed human characters. And Dustin Hoffman in particular (he's the lone actor both movies share and otherwise they have less than zero things in common), as Barney's sincere, socially inappropriate father, was a bullseye casting choice.
Director Nerd Alert: Those of you who know what acclaimed Canadian directors Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan even look like will be surprised by their odd little cameos, a sort of shout-out to the Canadian film world, even though, minus Barney's hockey obsessions, the movie doesn't really over-emphasize its own Canadian identity at all.