A film review by Craig J. Koban July 18, 2012
2012, R, 101 mins.
2012, R, 101 mins.
Jonathan Flynn: Robert De Niro /
Nick Flynn: Paul Dano /
Jody Flynn: Julianne Moore /
Denise: Olivia Thirlby /
Joy: Lili Taylor
FLYNN features the kind of powerful and fully committed dramatic performance by
Robert De Niro that we have not been privy to in the last
several years, seeing as the actor has allowed his titanic abilities to be
suffocated and neutered by lame and uninspired comic roles (see LITTLE
FOCKERS). It’s just
an absolute shame that Paul Weitz’s (ABOUT A BOY) film essentially fails
to harness an equally remarkable story around De Niro’s turn.
For as invigorating and animated as De Niro is here,
BEING FLYNN’s overall plot betrays that great performance and mostly overshadows
it. In all, the film is a
squandered opportunity for a once master thespian to return to his scting roots; it’s a disappointment for all involved.
The film – adapted to screen from a memoir gamely named ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY by Nick Flynn – tells the loosely-based-on-fact story of a family reunion of sorts between a long-term estranged father and son, the latter working as a social worker in a homeless shelter and the former an alcoholic and belligerent resident of it. Both are aspiring writers, which seems to be their one commonality, and both battle chemical addictions. The son is unsure of his abilities as a future literary powerhouse, but the father contrastingly has grand delusions of his own superlative worth.
for a film about writers, the process of writing, and how overconfidence
and lack of confidence in general figures into writing, BEING FLYNN does
not offer much in the way of insight into what writing entails, not to
mention that, when all is said and done, the relationship between father
and son never germinates to a commanding emotional payoff in the end.
It’s perfectly fine for films to have open-ended and ambiguous
conclusions, but BEING FLYNN seems to just end with a disappointing thud,
so much so that you kind of are left wondering why you spent time with
these characters in the first place.
in Boston, we are introduced to the son in question, Nick (Paul Dano), who
is trying to make something of his life before life runs away from him.
He does not appear to have much in the way of job prospects, but he
does have a modicum of talent as a writer that could develop with more
effort and faith in himself. His
life, granted, has never been great (as we see in flashback sequences
arbitrarily – if not a bit messily – spliced through the main story):
as a young lad his mother (a fine Julianne Moore) hung out with one man
after another in the aftermath of Nick’s father abandoning them.
As a result, he has lived with a genuine lack of a paternal figure
for decades, which has stunted his confidence and sense of security in the
world. Worse yet is that –
in the present – he struggles to find ways of dealing with his
mother’s recent death.
finds himself working at a local homeless shelter, perhaps because he identifies with the desperate and anxious mass of humanity that
walks through its doors every night.
As improbably as it sounds, Nick’s father, Jonathan (De Niro)
does indeed fatefully re-enter his life as a homeless man looking for refuge
at the same shelter Nick works at. They actually meet much earlier than that when Jonathon
finds himself getting evicted from his flea-bag apartment for accosting
his rowdy and unruly neighbors, after which he calls Nick and asks him to help him
move his possessions out of his suite.
It’s kind of amazing that Nick – who has not heard from his dad
in over 18 years – seems so willing to assist the man that left his
mother and him all those years ago, but never mind.
is a real piece of work. He
thinks he’s one of the greatest unknown writers of all-time, grandly
proclaiming himself to be on par with Twain and Salinger.
He speaks to fanatical lengths about what he feels will be his
“masterpiece,” titled "Memoirs of a Moron” that he just knows will
be a sensation. In reality, though, Jonathan is far from a masterful scribe
poised for acclaim: he’s a deadbeat cabbie, a chronic racist and
homophobe, a textbook narcissist, and a heavy boozer that – through his
own actions and stupidity – finds himself on the streets and inevitably
at Nick’s homeless shelter. The
trajectory of the rest of the film, I guess, is for Nick to come to grips
with who his father is and has become and whether he wants to be an active part
in his rehabilitation. In the
meantime, Nick emotionally crashes himself as he succumbs to drug abuse.
there is one thing that proudly stands out in BEING FLYNN it's the film's compelling lacking
of dramatic soppiness; it never takes pains
to make us like or warm over to its troubled characters, which gives the
film an edge that it might not have had under a different direction.
This is helped greatly by De Niro’s bravura performance as
Jonathan, an egomaniacal loser and distasteful SOB that never misses an
opportunity to tell people of his prominence.
Some have complained that De Niro just phones in a showboating
performance here, but that’s precisely what the role requires. Jonathan
is a loud, cantankerous, and unreasonably hostile presence in
throughout the film that seems to deal not only with dementia, but chronic
paranoia. There’s never a
moment in the film where you don’t buy De Niro’s complete immersion
into Jonathan’s freefall into insanity.
Dano is a thanklessly good actor as well who seems to
confidently play opposite of veteran actors, like Daniel Day Lewis in THERE
WILL BE BLOOD and Alan Arkin in LITTLE
MISS SUNSHINE. He
seems to have a more introverted despair when compared to De Niro’s
outward hostility and fury, which creates a nice dynamic between the
stars. Yet, for as decent as Dano is here, he’s not given much of
a character to really work with: Nick is pretty ill defined overall and
never really resonates as a character worthy of our rooting interest.
Basically, he’s a bohemian druggie that tepidly traverses through
his days – and life – without any real course of self-improvement.
It’s hard to even fathom that he is capable of being a
disciplined writer when he lacks discipline as a person.
also has a relationship with an attractive co-worker
(played by the greatly underused Olivia Thirlby) that does little to
embellish an already dramatically flat film.
FLYNN missteps in more ways, like having scenes of De Niro’s Jonathan in
a taxicab that draws some very obvious – and very distracting –
parallels to the actor's iconic performance in TAXI
DRIVER that’s hard to ignore.
There is painfully little social commentary in the narrative as
well in regards to the plight of the homeless and the tireless workers that tend
to them nightly. The biggest
sin of the film, though, is that the lingering and memorable presence of
De Niro as Jonathan is truly undone by a frankly unremarkable storyline
built around him. The central
relationship here between father and son – especially with the baggage
they both carry – is an endlessly complicated one that, to be sure,
demands an equally complex and defined story to place them in.
As Nick struggles to make a connection to his father, we too, in
turn, try to make meaningful connections with this movie, which we seem unable to do by the time the end credits roll by.