The prickly side of Barney is evidenced first as he supervises yet another day of production on a long-running, overtly ridiculous soap opera. And yet, it isn't half as tumultuous as his own story. That begins in the '70s where Barney feels obliged to marry his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a pregnant hippy who is as free with her sharp tongue as she is with her sexual favours. Barney plays dumb to the insults until she performs her final act of petulance - suicide. But it's Barney who is the tortured soul, blaming himself because he is all at once narcissistic and noble.
It's a revealing, darkly comic yet long-winded introduction. The story doesn't begin in earnest until Barney meets his second wife, billed as "The 2nd Mrs P". Minnie Driver clearly relishes this part of the 'Jewish Princess', rattling off her academic achievements as a means of seduction, rarely letting Barney get a word in - except when she's haranguing him for his failure to communicate... We're to suppose that Clara's suicide has left Barney so weak-willed that he agrees to walk her down the aisle. Alas, at the reception he meets the girl of his dreams.
Another British talent, Rosamund Pike plays the demure Miriam. It's the push and pull between them that finally turns this catalogue of comedy errors into a bona fide romance of star-crossed lovers. The intrigue grows as this relationship evolves under the most absurd circumstances. Of course, Miriam is initially repelled by Barney after he propositions her at his own wedding, but Giamatti skilfully pitches his performance somewhere between brash and pathetic to gradually endear himself. And finally, the murder he is supposed to have committed is illustrated, which opens the way for his third marriage. Still, a happy ending remains out of reach.
The mood darkens in the last act, feeling like a waiting game where Barney will inevitably slip up and ruin everything. What makes it more unnerving - and bizarre - is that Miriam never addresses the alleged murder, even after Barney becomes the focus of a media feeding frenzy. The jokes run out too, most notably when Dustin Hoffman (on sparkling form as his dad and ex-cop) bows out of his life. Before then, he never misses an opportunity to embarrass Barney with his point-blank remarks and casual optimism. There's more tragedy before the end, but director Richard J Lewis leads us to this point with such whimsy (despite being a veteran of CSI!) that it feels a tad contrived. Barney's memory begins to play tricks, which might cast doubt on his version of events, but the saving grace is Giamatti who always keeps it real.
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