America has produced only three great writers as we are told in this movie’s opening narration voiced by Robert De Niro in the character of Jonathan Flynn, that being Mark Twain, J.D Salinger, and himself. He is, as a matter of indisputable fact, quite delusional. And it is this movie’s object to make him both eccentrically lovable and existentially loathable at the same time, a task it mostly succeeds at thanks in large parts to the acting talents of Robert De Niro and the natural good will you want to feel towards the character. This movie was based off of the real life story of the poet Nick Flynn, who originally told it in his autobiographical novel titled ‘Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’, a title so strong and engaging that it makes ‘Being Flynn’ sound all the more bland, watered down, and boring by comparison. Nick Flynn goes on a journey of rediscovery in this film, meeting his father for the first time in many, many years, and along with the audience, having to endure his manic, off the wall, and generally offensive behavior, which as said above, seems to be designed in this film to both make us admire him for his old codgerly zaniness, and shun him as an out of touch delusional loon, with ultimate goal being the redemption, or at least understanding of both Jonathon and Nick. So yeah, this is basically a guy’s equivalent of a lifetime movie of the week, but it’s definitely got its strong points aside from that, so let’s not just throw it under the bus just yet.
Jonathan Flynn is certainly no threat for father of the year. We learn through flashback scenes and dialogue in ‘Being Flynn’ that he abandoned his son Nick early on his childhood, leaving the full burden of raising him to his mother, Jody, played in flashback by Julianne Moore. Flynn Sr. loses contact with his family entirely, spending some time in prison, and other time just hustling out in the world as a grifter, something he has a natural talent for. Throughout this time he sends his son Nick letters, in which he continually claims to be almost completed with some kind of grand novel or another that will be his breakthrough that gives him the kind of recognition that he feels he deserves. Alas, that novel, if it does exist even, is never finished, and Nick does not hear from his dad for the better part of two decades, until one fateful day he gets a phone call from him. It’s not the sentimental breakthrough he’s been hoping for though. His father has simply lost his job and is about to be (deservedly, as he is a rude and horrible tenant) kicked out of his apartment, and so he, having no other options desperately throws himself on his son. Nick is just getting established himself though and cannot (or will not, in some cases) take in his elderly father, who winds up homeless, while Nick, eventually winds up working at a homeless shelter. That circumstance, of course, culminates with Nick finding himself in the weird position of working at a homeless shelter that his own father is a patient in.
I first heard of this movie when I took my wife to see The Vow (Her choice, not mine, before you move to take away my Man Card…) and saw it advertised in the pre-show trailers. She immediately turned to me and said that this looks like something I would be interested in, to which I immediately nodded and agreed. Being someone interested in writing, and someone hoping to become a writer by trade someday myself, movies of this sort can, if they are well enough produced, find a well paved shortcut straight to my jaded old literary loving heart. The premise as it what was put forth in the trailer did seem quite intriguing as well. I originally thought this was going to be the tale of a young apprentice writer searching to find and reconnect with his father, who was a great and established writer himself, as well as mysterious and reclusive character. That, of course, is not exactly the way it all goes down in the movie as Jonathon is not a great established author in the vein of Faulkner and Hemingway, but just another of the countless crazies who believe themselves to be just that, and the trailer I saw, I suppose, was just echoing what he would have thought this story’s main premise would be. That discovery alone dampened my enjoyment of the movie somewhat, but, I thought the story of the kid and his father both being in the same homeless shelter was at times an interesting and thought provoking one as well though.
One of the problems I thought this movie had is that Nick Flynn, played here by Paul Dano, who is a fine actor in his own right, is completely overshadowed as a character by the powerhouse of a performance that Robert De Niro puts in as his father Jonathan. Robert De Niro takes this obsessed delusional character and gives him a dignity and a legitimacy that he perhaps does not deserve. During the course of the movie we see him transform from a well dressed, although still down on his luck individual who can sit down in any diner in New York city and look like another respectable patron, to an alcohol ridden shell of himself, shivering on the street and barely clinging to life. Throughout the entire ordeal, Jonathan Flynn never loses his chutzpah though. Nick Flynn, has problems all his own, struggling to find his identity and make friends, as well as keeping his own addiction to cocaine at bay, so that it does not ruin the one relationship he finds in this movie that he desperately wants to work out, that being with the lovely Olivia Thirlby, who plays his love interest, Denise, in this film. Denise, has her own history with substance abuse in her family, which wrecked tragic results on her life, so if Nick is going to have any chance with her, he is going to have to find some way to overcome that very overpowering addiction.
In the end this movie winds up becoming a bland, disconnected mess, which is at once both too dark and not dark enough for its base subject material. I was never quite sure whether this was going to be a down and dirty, gritty portrayal of actual drug and alcohol addiction in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas and other strong films of that sort, which could have been powerful in its own right, with the added bit of a family drama thrown in to deepen the plot, or a standard ‘tween’ movie in the aforementioned Lifetime movie of the week sort of variety, with the all the other elements thrown in just for the hell of it. Sadly, I am here to report that it was very much the latter of those two things for the most part. For a movie that deals with homelessness, cocaine addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide, I never felt it went far enough in any of those areas, to explore their deepest and darkest depths, like the aforementioned Leaving Las Vegas dealt with alcoholism and loneliness, for example. With the possible exception of the homelessness subplot, all of those subjects were more or less just there to be there, and director Paul Weitz never really tries to truly make a meaningful statement about them, or to have those dark issues serve as anything but fancy window dressing on an otherwise all too thin and uninspired tale.
I know the writers were handcuffed a bit with this being based on a true story and all, but I still think a little more effort or attention placed in any of these departments could have gone a long way to making this movie become much more than it was. As it is, the payoffs to all the aforementioned storylines seem forced and unearned in the greater context of the story, which is a shame because the actors here all put in quite respectable, and in the case of De Niro, quite good performances. Now, for the ‘not dark enough’ comment, if this movie wanted to be more or less a dramatic comedy or something basically entertainment focused instead of (mainly anyway) diving into the sordid issues set forth in the story here in a dead serious and grim manner that could have also worked out well. As I said, the Robert De Niro character is a hoot to watch at times, and watching him in the homeless shelter could have been a great asylum kind of movie in the ‘One Flew Over The Coo Coo’s Nest’ kind of way, but instead there’s nowhere near enough levity here for something like that to transpire. The overwhelming intensity of the drama here quite literally overwhelms the story and without a tight enough script to handle such a heavy emotional load, it basically turns it into pure Grade A pap of the all too precious variety.
This movie opens with a shot of Robert De Niro, as a Taxi Driver in New York City. Smoke billows up from the streets as he glides into the Taxi station. As a stand alone moment, it’s a nice homage to one of the greatest and most signature roles of his career and one of the all time classic pieces of great cinema in general. In this movie though it just served to remind me of a movie that wasn’t afraid of its gritty subject matter, and one that didn’t pull its punches, as this one most certainly does to its great detriment. Travis Bickle would have little time for much of the self indulgent lip flap that makes up a good chunk of this movie, and I too, found it more tiresome than anything else after a while. These characters were perhaps too self aware for their own good. It’s not so much that this is a bad movie, as it is just a bland one.
If you’re a big time fan of Robert De Niro, as you very well ought to be, it may be worth checking out for his performance alone, but even in the Herculean effort he provides here, it is still not enough to elevate this beyond what it is, which is basically Lifetime movie of the week fare. So basically, in some not so breaking news, Robert De Niro is still apparently good at this whole acting thing, but not good enough to save dreck such as this. Everyone else here seems as lost as in this shell of a story as I was, although they do the best that they can acting wise. By the time everything was wrapped up and finally coming together, I had already passed the point of caring. For a better recent movie that also saw Mr. De Niro playing a psychologically challenged individual with an estranged son storyline, go and see ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ or if you just want some classic De Niro, go and watch Taxi Driver. Both of those movies will provide you with a much fuller and more satisfying movie watching experience than ‘Being Flynn’ could ever dream of, although that is admittedly true of most other movies as well.
Being Flynn gets a two out of five: FORGETTABLE.