By Linc Leifeste | March 9, 2012
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: Paul Weitz (screenplay), Nick Flynn (book)
Starring: Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Eddie Rouse, Lili Taylor, Wes Studi
Being Flynn opens with dueling voice-overs. Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) introduces himself as a master storyteller and one of only three classic writers that America has produced (along with Twain and Salinger) before his son Nick (Paul Dano) suddenly wrests control away, letting us know that this really isn’t Jonathan’s story but his own. It’s a clever way of setting the stage to tell the story of a young and troubled writer trying to work out his own identity and path through life while trying to figure out the role that he’s going to allow his father to play in that process. I guess it’s more accurate to say that Nick is trying to figure out if he really has a say in what his father’s role will be in his life or if he even has a say in the path his own life will take.
It is soon revealed that Jonathan Flynn is an accomplished storyteller in his own mind only. In reality, he’s a narcissistic and delusional huckster and alcoholic who was an absentee father to Nick (via regular letter writing only) and is now struggling to get by as a taxi driver. Wait, Robert De Niro playing a delusional taxi driver with anger issues? Why does that sound familiar? Yes, De Niro’s Flynn more than tips his hat to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle and I’m sure that will rub some the wrong way, with its potential caricatured nature. As for me, I found it particularly pleasing to see him rage believably again after a long stretch of less than challenging roles (for a great example, check out his prior teaming with director Paul Weitz, 2010’s Little Fockers).
It’s been eighteen years since Nick has seen his father but that changes abruptly when he gets a call from him asking for Nick’s assistance as he’s facing eviction from his shabby apartment after physically assaulting his noisy downstairs neighbors. Nick, recently finding himself unemployed and momentarily homeless after being kicked out of his girlfriend’s place for indiscreetly cheating, is having a rough go of it himself but agrees to help his father out. The reunion turns out to be somewhat anticlimactic. After Nick loads up his dad’s possessions and agrees to store them in his new residence (warehouse space that was formerly a strip club but is now serving as an apartment for several people), Jonathan gifts Nick with an “original Jackson Pollock” that turns out, like just about everything Jonathan is involved with, to be something other than what he claims, before he once again simply walks out of Nick’s life.
It’s not too long after Nick lands a job working at a homeless shelter that his father reappears, this time looking for a place to stay. Jonathan’s mental health has deteriorated further, with the resultant behavior costing him his taxi and leaving him on the street. Having his dad become a resident of the homeless shelter is tough for Nick to deal with, aggravating his own addiction problems, and soon both father and son are spiraling completely out of control.
Based on Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night In Suck City: A Memoir, I’m sure that Being Flynn will divide audiences. The subject matter alone will be too dark and depressing for many, between Jonathan abandoning his family, Nick’s mother Jody’s (Julianne Moore) suicide, the reality of homeless shelters and Nick’s spiraling drug addiction. While I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, I left the theater conflicted on whether the film was dark enough. While presenting graphic and disturbing material, the film shies away from graphically representing much of it all. You see Nick try crack for the first time in a visually dark scene but you never really see what the results of his drug use are or how far he falls. You repeatedly see Jonathan’s anger and rage building up but the releases are often only hinted at or shown off-screen, making him seem less dangerous than he really is. You see Jody holding a handgun as she’s contemplating her suicide but the act’s violence is hidden. I will give the film credit for representing the ugly nature of day to day life in a homeless shelter, something not often seen on the big screen.
But probably the harshest criticism will be towards the portrayals of Nick’s parents. Jonathan, as portrayed by De Niro, is fairly one-dimensional and the motivations behind his behavior are never explained. Likewise, Jody’s small presence in the film prior to her suicide is always loving and stable, causing her suicide, in a sense, to seem sudden and completely out of character for what has been revealed about her. But if you pay attention to the details and think about the nature of the characters, Weitz has done an admirable job in telling their stories. There is no explanation for Jonathan Flynn’s behavior other than possibly undiagnosed mental illness. And as for Jody, there’s a telling scene where she refers to Nick as always being such an intuitive child after he asks her why she’s crying despite there being no tears coming from her eyes. Likewise, the references to the steady stream of boyfriends in her life, the nature of the men she dates (or married in Jonathan’s case) and her need to perpetually work two mundane jobs in order to make ends meet, all paint the picture of a person carrying heavy burdens.
For me, the beauty of the film lies in the complexity of Nick’s relationships with his parents and his constant struggle to define his own existence outside of their shadows. While Jonathan doesn’t have too many redeeming qualities, it’s clear that he’s had some positive influences on his son. It’s doubtful that Nick would have become the writer he did without his dad’s constant letters (even if they are mostly fictional in nature) extolling the virtues of the life of a writer and it’s equally doubtful he would have become the sensitive person he did without the steadfast love of his mother (despite her ultimate suicide). Paul Dano, he of softly aggressive passivity, perfectly captures the wounded spirit of an abandoned child growing into manhood while trying to find himself, which he ultimately does. But despite that outcome, the film manages to avoid being a stereotypical Hollywood redemption story, refusing to neatly wrap everything up with a pretty bow.