In the opening scene of this film, Joshua Shapiro (James Woods) is living in the country with his father Reuben (Alan Arkin) and his father-in-law (Alexander Knox), a former Canadian Senator. Pauline (Gabrielle Lazure), Joshua's wife, has disappeared, and his career as a bestselling author and television celebrity is being dragged down by a scandal revolving around his supposed homosexual affair with an English writer. This is Joshua "Now."

"Then" recalls the earlier life and experiences of Joshua in a series of flashbacks. We see the young street-smart boy growing up in Montreal. His father, a former boxer, is a colorful character who has some far-out interpretations of the Old Testament. Reuben leaves home because of his bootlegging activities. Joshua's mother (Linda Sorensen) performs a striptease for the adolescent boys at her son's Bar Mitzvah party.

Amazingly, Joshua survives this childhood, and when he grows up, he writes a book about the Spanish Civil War. While in England, he befriends a writer and for kicks, the two concoct a secret salacious homosexual correspondence which they hope will set the literary world in an uproar — they plan to sell their memoirs to a university.

Joshua falls in love with Pauline, who is married to an antiwar activist. He steals her away from him, and they return as husband and wife to Montreal. Their relationship disintegrates when he becomes involved in the fashionable country club set of her childhood. The suicide of Pauline's playboy brother (Michael Sarrzin) sends her into a mental institution, and Joshua is left trying to piece together the meaning of his life — then and now.

Ted Kotcheff directs this sprawling drama based on Mordecal Richler's 1980 novel of the same title. The story's major themes of ethnic vitality and class warfare don't transcribe to the screen very credibly. Still, the movie radiates energy, and Alan Arkin's zany performance as Reuben is a comic tour de force.