Barney's Version is an ambitious callback to the earlier novels of John Updike and Philip Roth, the distinctly literary sweeping look at the interior life of a man (usually white, very often Jewish) as he marries, divorces, marries again, and fumbles around realizing that he doesn't know anything at all. (The film comes by this literary pedigree honestly, being adapted from a Bellow-esque novel by Mordecai Richler.) If you're going to center a movie on the interior life of a man, you can't choose a better actor than Paul Giamatti. Without the pounds of aging makeup that other actors require to pull it off, he illustrates the life of Barney Panofsky, from a young bohemian wannabe in Rome, through a third marriage and a comfortable middle age as a schlock TV producer, to the very end of his life.

Don't expect a sentimental cuddlefest. Panofsky is an asshole; he shoots his mouth off (and barely deigns to deal with the repercussions of his actions) over and over again. At times, he grudgingly enjoys his friends and family, but more often he's obsessed with himself (you can almost see the cartoon scribble hovering over the series of grumpy facial expressions he wears through most of the movie). He's surrounded by lively characters: Dustin Hoffman rounds a bit part as Giamatti's father into a character deserving of his own film; Scott Speedman charms as the wily, seductive friend who is always fucking up; and Rosamund Pike, especially, as the aforementioned (mostly) placid third wife couples her performance ably with Giamatti's.

Like the novels that inspire it, Barney's Version overreaches at crucial moments. There are a few too many weighty symbols, a few too many meaningful revelations. But this kind of cinematic overstuffing is a welcome change from the sterile flock of Oscar movies that dutifully trot and preen through theaters at this time of year; in a just world, Barney's Version would be battling it out at the Academy Awards just for being a maddening, joyful, ambitious mess of a movie. We could use more like it. recommended