A film review by Craig J. Koban July 18, 2012

BEING FLYNN jj
½  

2012, R, 101 mins.

 

Jonathan Flynn: Robert De Niro / Nick Flynn: Paul Dano / Jody Flynn: Julianne Moore / Denise: Olivia Thirlby / Joy: Lili Taylor

Written and directed by Paul Weitz, based on the memoir by Nick Flynn

BEING 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.  

Funny, 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. 

Set 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. 

 

 

Nick 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. 

Jonathan 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. 

If 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. 

Paul 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.  Nick 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. 

BEING 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. 

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