Barney's Version is a film that tries very hard to condense an entire lifespan of a man within 2 hours or so, and imagines that loosely-connected vignettes throughout time and space will do the trick. It fails miserably at creating an anchor for the narrative in doing so, and is poorer for it. In fact, I'd simply call it a narrative failure and move on, except that it has some actors doing their career's best work.
Paul Giamatti is lively and extremely nuanced as the titular Barney, to the extent that he balances the pacing and thematic issues with his performance. You may not have a connecting thread to let you watch Barney's life (a similar problem to an otherwise unconnected Guru), but Giamatti lets you understand the character's growth and progression simply by the way he chooses to grow with the role.
While the movie chooses to throw in some cliches to make us understand Barney's poor decisions in life, it is mostly the affable way Giamatti plays him that sells this lovable little goof to us, completely mesmerising throughout the character's span in the film.
He is lent amazing support by Dustin Hoffman as Barney's dad, probably the most fun performance Hoffman has given in recent times, and Rosamund Pike and Minnie Driver, both of whom bring a level of sophistication to the theatrics. If it wasn't for the actors, the flick may have seemed a little looser, a little rawer, but it is a testament to their class and skill that it instead feels fresh and completely fun.
Ultimately this is a Giamatti vehicle though. The film is a collection of unconnected and messily-edited set of moments from his life in the '70s as a hopeful romantic, to that as a confused old man in the present day.
Giamatti is creating a character study right under the nose of this poor narrative, however. He finds the right tone for each character trait, imbuing his bitterness with a little warmth and his selfishness with humour, something that creates a real, living character much more than the plot does.
Despite not having the narrative anchor, or a cohesive structure, the writing is strong in stand-alone scenes. The dialogue is crisp, and the screenplay flows in such scenes. It's just the structure that disappoints a little.
In the end, the parts do make a whole, if only with a deeply-layered and textured performance by Giamatti, and are totally worth your time and money.