Films of the week

Barney's Version (15), Biutiful (15) (3/5, 1/5)

Three weddings and a murder

Think of Barney Panofsky as a Montreal version of Saul Bellow's flawed heroic ironist Moses Herzog. It's evidently how his creator Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) thought of him, and Barney's Version bends over backwards trying to honour this, Richler's final novel.

It packs in a fair amount of incident, covers an ambitious timeframe, uses some of the book's best lines and, most importantly, features two stand-out performances from Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike. But however much you want to like it there's something crucial missing, and it's as straightforward and complex as this: a believable impression of lived experience.

We first see middle-aged Barney (Giamatti) crank-calling his ex-wife's new husband in the small hours, before the story reels back to his early days as a bohemian abroad in 1970s Rome and a marriage to a flaky, suicidal free spirit. Back in Montreal his second marriage to a "loaded" Jewish princess (Minnie Driver) is even quicker to combust: their wedding day isn't over before Barney spots from the corner of his eye a willowy beauty named Miriam (Pike) whom he pursues out of the ceremony and on to her train home to New York. He finds her there, not just lovely in spectacles but reading – you guessed it – Herzog. This is the woman he must have, third time lucky, and through demented – or perhaps romantic – persistence he eventually wears her down.

You can understand her reluctance. Quite apart from the fact that he's short and paunchy, with hair like a scouring pad and breath reeking of cigars, Barney has that awful track record with marriage, and shows more interest in boozing than he does in his TV production company (called, with appropriate self-deprecation, Totally Unnecessary Productions). Yet Miriam, with her amazing clear skin and mellifluous voice, and a fetching peacock blue beret, somehow agrees to be his. It is entirely down to Rosamund Pike's performance – sweet but not soppy, forgiving but not mousy – that Miriam doesn't seem to doubt the rightness of her choice. And yet our own doubts about him are never put to rest, for Barney invites suspicion not just as randy opportunist but, incredibly, as a murderer. How exactly did his drug-addicted best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) vanish from sight, having boffed Barney's second wife and provoked the cuckold to fire his revolver?

It is a case pursued down the years by a police detective (Mark Addy, looking a lot like porky 1970s TV cop Frank Cannon), who threatens to be his nemesis. But nobody could be a worse enemy to Barney than his own self, witness his neglect of Miriam's radio career, his rudeness to her friends, his lousy behaviour when she spends a week away. His only unwavering support throughout is his ex-cop father Izzy, played by Dustin Hoffman as another loveable-but-impossible horny old goat. Hoffman adds gaiety to the film, which keeps promising to bestir itself but never quite does. Once Barney has settled into marriage and fatherhood, pace and rhythm desert the scene, pointing up the difficulty of rendering the voice of Richler's novel into something more than a ploddy recital of events. Yes, there is pathos in the latter stages, though certainly not as much as director Richard J Lewis and his writer Michael Konyves seem to think. Giamatti, who's 43 but looks older, handles Barney's ageing effortlessly and his obnoxiousness heroically, chalking up another in his gallery of grumps (Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, Miles in Sideways). But he's busting his gut for a movie with literariness, not life, in its veins.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest, Biutiful, is 147 minutes of handwringing miserabilism, a desperately glum drama of good intentions gone wrong. "Is it real?" are the first words we hear, foreshadowing some would-be profound reflections on the line between this world and the next. It is the kind of film made by a director who's been told he's "a visionary" and believes it. Javier Bardem plays the central role of Uxbal, a go-between in the Barcelona netherworld of African street-sellers, Chinese sweatshop workers and police on the take. Pale of face and weary of demeanour, Uxbal is also a sort of corpse-whisperer, communing with the dead and reporting back to their bereaved relatives (for a price). At home he gloweringly tends to his two children and tries to keep them away from their mentally unstable mother (Maricel Alvarez), little suspecting that she is diddling his older brother (Eduard Fernandez), a cokehead nightclub owner. As if that weren't enough, Uxbal is pissing blood and possibly dying from prostate cancer.

The film arrives with an extraordinary – and inexplicable – awards buzz, notably for Bardem's lead performance. If they do give him the nod it could only be for Best Impersonation of a Modern Saint; he puts even more effort into not smiling than he did with his killer in No Country for Old Men. There is one scene of great poignancy, when he confesses to an appalling calamity he has inadvertently caused, but he's fighting a losing battle against the draggy lassitude around him. Iñárritu, parted from his regular screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he made the fractured mosaics of 21 Grams and Babel, has given rein to his worst tendency – a pious, we-are-the-world self-importance – and mislaid the snarling energy that drove along his best work, Amores Perros. He needs to remind himself that, no matter how serious his subjects (the global economy, mortality etc), he still has an obligation to entertain. This film is like being bashed over the head with a gravestone. And that cute misspelling of the title doesn't get any less annoying.

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