Review: Being Flynn (2012)

The last decade has not been kind to Robert De Niro. In the 70s through 90s De Niro was arguably the greatest actor working in Hollywood. Unfortunately, in the last decade he has phoned in performances in a seemingly endless list of bad movies.

This in mind, one of the most accomplished aspects of Being Flynn is that De Niro is actually trying for a good performance. While his role as Jonathan Flynn, self-described master writer and raconteur, and slightly deranged vagabond, occasionally descends into scenery chewing, it’s not hard to see this as the best work he’s done in a while.

Being Flynn is an adaptation of Jonathan’s son, Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and the description sounds like a lifetime movie destined for daytime television. Paul Dano plays Nick, an aimless college dropout who takes a job at a homeless shelter partially because he wants to do something meaningful and partially to be close to an attractive female acquaintance (Olivia Thirlby).

While there, Nick comes into contact with his father, Jonathan, who is staying at the shelter. Jonathan had abandoned Nick when Nick was a child, leaving him with his mother (Julianne Moore), who eventually committed suicide.

The film is told through literary conceits, as both Jonathan and Nick desire to be great writers. Flashbacks, voice-over narration, tricks with the passage of time are all used to tell the story. These little conceits allow director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) the most room for innovation. The two different tracks of narration, one from Nick and the other from Jonathan, seem to be competing with each other over who is more insightful and whose story the film actually is. This is effective filmmaking, and surprisingly witty. However, Weitz’s visual style, a strange mix between urban grit and indie shaky-cam drama, is less effective.

In a few major aspects, the film is not as successful. It centres on Nick, a wildly indecisive character, and the film seems to adopt this indecisiveness. Dano has always seemed an ambivalent actor, playing extremely low-key and surly in most every film he’s in. Sometimes his method is successful (as in There Will Be Blood, where he’s allowed to play off the mammoth performance of Daniel Day-Lewis), and here there are effective moments, but when the entire film acquires this understated-ness, his performance becomes irritating and the resulting product is unfocused.

The film also doesn’t do enough with its themes. It deals with some heavy issues: homelessness, drug addiction, neglectful parenting, suicide, and it tries to give these issues their due. But at the same time it seems to be entranced by the Hollywood prospects of the story, the hokey tale of redemption and inspiration that is lurking beneath the surface of this real-world muck.

This is a tension the film never really resolves. And yet, you have to admire that the film turned out as well as it did when the story description could have easily warranted a product seeped in sentimentality and easy answers. For everything that it is, Being Flynn is not sentimental.

That Being Flynn gives no easy answers to the predicaments its characters face and no clear definition of its characters is both its greatest asset and its biggest weakness. It reflects the insecurities and difficulties of understanding one’s place in the messy world where no easy narratives are offered. But at the same time, to exist as compelling storytelling, it needs to have some purpose to the madness, some story with a beginning, middle and end.

At the very least, Being Flynn is a chance to see Robert De Niro back in (mostly) top form, and evidence that while Paul Weitz has directed crap like Little Fockers, he is still a director with some intriguing filmmaking talent.

Being Flynn (2012)

Directed by Paul Weitz; written by Paul Weitz, based off the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn; starring Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, Olivia Thirlby, and Julianne Moore.

6 out of 10

Being Flynn is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.