American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Barney’s Version" tells the story of a man distinguished largely by his flaws and the beautiful woman who loves him in spite of them. What she sees in him I am not quite sure. He is a precariously functioning alcoholic and chain smoker of cigars, balding and with a paunch, a producer of spectacularly bad television shows, and a fanatic hockey fan. Since he lives in Montreal, many good women might forgive the hockey, but he is also hostile toward her friends, rude at dinner parties, and has bad taste in ties.
Barney Panofsky is played by Paul Giamatti, who just won a Golden Globe for his performance. It is successful not simply because of his acting but because of his exuding. He has a sweet quality that just barely allows us to understand why three women, the last of them a saint, would want to marry him. It’s not money: He’s broke when he marries the first, the second is rich in her own right, and the third is so desirable that Barney actually walks out of his own wedding reception to chase her to the train station and declare his love at first sight.
"Barney’s Version" is based on a 1997 novel by Mordecai Richler, whose The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) is also the life story of a flawed but lovable Jewish character from Montreal. Barney’s story is told in retrospect, in the form of a response to a book written by a cop who is convinced Barney murdered his best friend. How the friend probably did die is suggested in a nicely handled late scene that Barney himself, by the time he experiences it, is not able to understand.
Having once in middle age forgotten where he parked his car, Barney progresses rather rapidly into Alzheimer’s, although most of the film involves scenes before that happens. Since this isn’t a movie about the disease, we might ask why it’s included at all, but I think it functions as a final act in a life that was itself forgettable. Nothing distinguishes Barney, except his romanticism and the woman who inspires it.