“We were put on this earth to help others,” says Nick Flynn, protagonist of the memoir-based film Being Flynn. Pity that his father doesn’t agree, setting the stage for a longstanding conflict between father and son. In competing narration, Nick’s father Jonathan (Robert De Niro) reveals his epic self-absorption: “Everything I write is a masterpiece, and soon, very soon, I shall be known.” This and even more egregious delusions of grandeur help to explain Jonathan’s absent fatherhood, from his divorce of Nick’s mother (Julianne Moore) to his subsequent eighteen-year disappearing act.
Circumstances thrust Nick (Paul Dano of There Will Be Blood) back into his needy father’s life, and soon they’re in the “father” of all awkward situations. Now homeless, Jonathan becomes the lightning-rod problem case of a bustling homeless shelter, the very same one where Nick works and struggles to contemplates a brighter path for his life. Nick has trouble enough finding his way without the present shame of his father, but the son’s frustrations compound as Jonathan provides a vision of a worst-case-scenario future where Nick must become his father. “You are me!” Jonathan rails. “I made you!”
The real Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City provides a template for wrenching drama, but the adaptation by writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) follows it too perfunctorily. The script is at its best with clever turns of phrase, uncomfortably canny insights bandied between father and son, and the odd blunt juxtaposition (like Nick’s little-boy-lost past with his big-boy-lost present) but even these at times lend the film a certain smug polish at odds with what should feel inescapably, claustrophobically real.
Dano’s performance, a sort of bound-and-gagged aria of moroseness, deserves trappings that would enhance and complement it, but ironically even the casting of De Niro, once the highest standard of authenticity, fails to deliver. Though technically sound, the self-aware actor’s turn as an un-self-aware man feels showy rather than lived in, and skips the nuances that would make Jonathan’s life on the border of mental illness truly moving.
Instead Jonathan becomes much more of a foil than a genuine personality—so too Moore’s pain-masking mother, wasted in a fleeting few scenes: these are the influences that formed Nick Flynn. And so, the film asks, whaddya gonna do about it, Nick? The predictable answers: abuse drugs, self-pity, climactic confrontation, and arrival at a sort of acceptance.
There’s an air of therapy about it all, which becomes amusingly apparent when Nick hijacks a shelter check-in session to serve as a de facto writer’s group. Moments like this and the rare screen acknowledgement of lower-class America suggest the better film Being Flynn might have been. It’s simply difficult to throw in with the film’s reality—if not its essential story, then its details: Being Flynn feels indie art-directed instead of observed.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]