VENICE (Reuters) - A bittersweet comedy premiering at the Venice film festival brings to the big screen the cult book “Barney’s Version,” the witty story of a politically incorrect Jewish man spanning four decades and three marriages.
The film, the last to screen in the main competition at the festival ahead of Saturday’s awards ceremony, casts Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, the irreverent hero of Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s 1997 prize-winning novel.
Stung by accusations that he murdered his best friend, Barney decides to tell “the true story of my wasted life” and does so by dividing it into three parts, each corresponding to one of his wives.
Barney’s caustic humor — his TV company is called Totally Unnecessary Productions and he drinks his whisky at Grumpy’s Bar — and the candid tone of his memoir made for an entertaining end to the festival.
“Hopefully he’s a jerk who is likeable,” Giamatti told Reuters in an interview after a press screening of the film, a Canadian-Italian co-production.
“I don’t think of him as like a Woody Allen character but (he has) the humor definitely, that kind of dark, self-deprecating, pessimistic Jewish humor which I like, which I think is great.”
Producer Robert Lantos spent more than a decade turning the book, which won Canada’s most prestigious literary award, into a film and struggled to find the right screenplay writer after Richler died in 2001.
“Making, at least in the English-speaking world today, any film that is not designed for teenagers is a path full of hurdles which I don’t recommend to anyone,” Lantos said.
“This was particularly complex because the screenplay was going to be written by Mordecai Richler. He had written the screenplays for all previous films made from his novels and he began to write Barney’s Version and then he became ill and then he left us ... That became the major hurdle.”
For Lantos and director Richard J. Lewis the biggest challenge was to do justice to the novel, which also plays with the idea that this being Barney’s point of view, it is not totally reliable.
“People are expecting a movie that feels true to the book and that’s my job,” Lewis said.
“I think the most important thing is that the characters be in sync, that Barney Panofsky in the book and Barney Panofsky in the film feel the same and the wives feel right.”
Minnie Driver is Barney’s second wife, a wealthy Jewish woman who talks endlessly, while Rosamund Pike is cast as his third wife Miriam, the true love of his life.
Some of the novel’s characters have either been eliminated or condensed in the film, which also sets Barney’s bohemian years in Rome rather than Paris — a choice producers said had been made in agreement with Richler.
Conversely, the character of Barney’s father — an older version of the protagonist played by Dustin Hoffman — has been beefed up.
“Thirty years ago he would have played this part way better than I did,” Giamatti said of Hoffman, who did not make the trip to Venice.
Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala, editing by Paul Casciato