Mark Reviews Movies

Being Flynn


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Weitz

Cast: Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Julianne Moore

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 3/2/12 (limited); 3/9/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2012

Being Flynn features two narrators competing for the audience and each other's attentions. It's a clever narrative device, made a bit more complex by the fact that they are both essentially unreliable narrators. One has repressed much of his emotional baggage, and the other has plenty of psychological baggage that clouds his perception of reality.

Of course, this uncertainty only plays out in the dueling voice-overs, and the story itself plays out straight. It's a jumble of interpersonal conflict, inner turmoil, some general thoughts on the writing process and the nature of the writer, and a exposé into the cruel world of the homeless. Then again, that's what one expects from an author's personal memoir, which is the basis for Being Flynn (The original title of the book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is far more evocative of the traps of desperation and pain into which the characters fall, but you'll probably never see such a title on a movie poster).

The author is Nick Flynn, played in the movie by Paul Dano. Nick has issues. He and his girlfriend break up at the start of things after she discovers he's been sleeping around. In protest, out of anger, or just because it feels right at the moment, Nick slams his head into the bathroom mirror into which he had been staring at his reflection for a bit too long. Jobless and presently homeless, Nick moves into a loft where the current tenants don't care that he's unemployed and without any real prospects as long as he doesn't anticipate having any family come to visit. His mother (Julianne Moore in flashbacks) is dead; if he ever met his father, he doesn't remember it.

From letters from dad that came regularly during his childhood, though, he got the itch to write and to live up to the ideal that "We are put on this Earth to help one another."  His father is Jonathan (Robert De Niro), a man who insists he is one of only three great modern writers (The other two are Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger). He is still living the life of his son—struggling to find his place in the world, maintaining an austere lifestyle, and certain that his big break is only a publisher away; of course, he has some years on his boy.

There's also something else. Despite his lofty opinion of himself, Jonathan has never been published. He holds a rejection letter from a publisher in his wallet as a badge of honor (The work has undeniable "personality," the letter reads). He assures us he's writing the great American novel, and like many who have attempted it before him, he's going broke in the effort. He's booted from his apartment for assaulting his downstairs neighbor, whose band had been bugging him for who knows how long, and winds up living out of the back of the taxi he drives for a living.

Out of the blue, Nick receives a call from Jonathan asking for help moving his things into storage. The son quickly gets a picture of the father he has missed yet hasn't: a racist, homophobic, and deluded man with as little respect for others as he has a lofty opinion of himself. As a parting gift, Jonathan gives his son a painting by Jackson Pollock; it turns out to be a fake. Does the father know this, or has he convinced himself that he was once a friend of the artist?

The characters are the primary focus of writer/director Paul Weitz' screenplay, and that dichotomy of how they perceive themselves against the reality of their respective situations (This is especially prominent in the case of Jonathan) lends itself to some effective dramatic moments. As Jonathan drifts further and further from any sense of his previous life, his inner monologue firmly maintains that he's simply doing research for his writing. There are miserable little details in the examination of his life without any consistent source of shelter, like when he spends the day in the library and finds the vents that release the excess heart from the building so that he has a warm place to sleep against the chilling, potentially deadly cold.

The lives of father and son become entangled further when Jonathan starts staying at a local homeless shelter where Nick—based on the suggestion of Denise (Olivia Thirlby), a pretty young woman who isn't looking for a relationship until she meets him—has begun working. Unspoken by Nick's voiceover but implied by his own slow unraveling is that the son worries he is on the same path of self-destruction as his father (and, for that matter, his mother, who committed suicide after reading an unfinished story Nick wrote about her—he's convinced it was his fault). He takes the steps (excessive drinking, drug use, etc.) necessary to fulfill those anxieties.

Being Flynn is honest and well-meaning, with fine performances from De Niro and Dano that let the internal ache shine through. It's also messy, not only in its depiction of squalor but also its vacillating focus, gaps of character, and a too-tidy finale (Whether it's true to life and the book or not is beside the point), and for all the effort to balance the lives of father and son, it's the father's story that's more intriguing.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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