102 min., dir. by Paul Weitz, with Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, and Olivia Thirlby
Let’s face it. Being Flynn would have gotten heaps of attention if it were released under the name of the memoir it’s based on, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Sure, the performances are going to be recognized. Many people who haven’t seen it want to raise the award banner for Robert De Niro, but writer/subject Nick Flynn must have known that such a punchy title would help ease the blow of a fairly depressing life remembered. This solid film imagining just can’t seem to find a way to separate good re-telling from good storytelling.
Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is lost. It has been 18 years since he has seen his father, Jonathan (De Niro). Jonathan is a bigoted, racist, homophobe who classifies himself as one of the only three worthwhile great American novelists (even though he has never been published). While Nick seems to float from one job to another, he still shows interest in being a writer himself. Jonathan was never around enough to be a true influence on Nick; still, they seem to follow similar paths. After a long drought of not seeing each other, the two men are thrust together when Jonathan resorts to living in the homeless shelter that Nick happens to work at.
This film will hit you from all angles and cause you to roll up in the corner in the fetal position. When Nick’s life is reaching a new plateau, Jonathan’s manic ramblings will bring you back down. If they seem to be getting by at times, the sheer reality of the homeless that surround them both will smack you back to reality. The fact is, no one’s life is pretty, and Being Flynn likes to remind you of that. The original title may seem like a cheap trick to some, but it’s what helped tie the story to everyone else’s life.
Being Flynn doesn’t seem to focus its aim. Everything that goes on around these “boys” is a metaphorical beam that puts their situation in perspective. It’s something that needs that flowery writer’s treatment that each of them loves to toss around in their banter, and that probably is clearer in the memoir’s written form.
The stark contrast between Paul Dano’s timid (sometimes explosive) nature against Robert De Niro’s overly flamboyant (rarely caged) megalomania is what drives the film. You sit and wait for each to make some sort of breakthrough, and even when one may, nothing seems to change. Instead of watching a ship sink or reemerge, Being Flynn is like watching a boat riddled with leaks that just continues to drift. Right when you think it’s about to go under, it just remains, floating along.
Everything that works about Being Flynn is supplied by a character model. It’s hard to praise the film for doing it all right when it’s the source that creates all these ideas I take away. Just as Flynn is unflinching in his telling of his troubled life, the film doesn’t shy away from perfectly showing it. Yet it doesn’t seem to break away enough to build something else out of the framework. Liberties were taken, I’m sure, but it feels as though the filmmakers are showing the book, rather than creating something out of it.