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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 23, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 12
Literary Flynn an intoxicating oddity - with Trailer
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Literary Flynn an intoxicating oddity - with Trailer

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Being Flynn
Now Playing


Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) doesn't know his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro). In all honesty, he doesn't care to, as the man left him and his mom (Julianne Moore) high and dry decades ago thanks to a combination of a penal incarceration and excessive amounts of vodka. The young man doesn't believe - or at least doesn't want to believe - that they have anything in common, and as far as he's concerned, it's for the best the guy isn't a part of his life.

Egged on by Denise (Olivia Thirlby), a friend of a friend with whom he quickly becomes intimately involved, Nick gets a job working at a local New York homeless shelter, ingratiating himself with the rest of the staff including head-man Captain (Wes Studi) and former addict turned receptionist Joy (Lili Taylor). But things spiral out of control as Jonathan walks through the shelter's front door. Father and son are suddenly confronted with one another, and old demons do battle thanks to this reunion.

Based on Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir by Nick Flynn, writer/director Paul Weitz's (In Good Company) Being Flynn understands the crazy indescribable lunacy that it is to be a professional writer. The hubris, the self-infatuation, all of it mixed with a sense of doubt, a frustrating blend of indecision and fright that is as conflicting as it is natural. A writer believes in their abilities, believes they are the best at what they do, but at the same time are terrified of revealing so much of themselves they'll be proven an obvious fraud. It's an incredible dichotomy filmmakers have been waxing poetic about for generations, the saga of the disillusioned put-upon writer a staple of cinema since the advent of the moving picture.

It's the rest of the stuff where Being Flynn frustrates. The relationship between Nick and Jonathan, the way they respond to one another, none of it feels as genuine as I wanted it to. A lot of the material - as intimate, personal, lived-in, and fully experienced as it was - did not resonate. So much of the melodrama felt pulled from other, better movies (Wonder Boys, The Lost Weekend, even Weitz's own About a Boy), the clich├ęs pilling up to the point where they diluted the impact of the honestly realized emotions energetically percolating throughout.

Save one or two scenes where he can't help but go enthusiastically over-the-top, I borderline loved De Niro in this. It is so rare of late that the actor finds a character worthy of his talents, one where he doesn't feel the need to phone in his performance or rely upon tics and traits that have almost made him a caricature of his Oscar-winning past (Everybody's Fine and Stone being notable recent exceptions). His command of Jonathan, his delusions of grandeur as he fast-talks his abilities and proclaims himself to be a literary titan, the little hints of darkness and tragedy that gleam through his eyes, all of it combines to compile a figure who in many ways is awe-inspiring.

On the flipside, I'm not sure what I make of Dano. Like just about everyone, I adored him in Little Miss Sunshine, felt his performance was one of the best things in an already excellent film. He was also good in There Will Be Blood, but that movie was more about Daniel Day Lewis' dominating presence and the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson than it was anything else, so I'm not exactly sure I can single him out one way or the other.

Here, however, I sort of felt the same way about his Nick Flynn as I did about the characters he's portrayed in The Extra Man, Meek's Cutoff, and the more or less execrable Gigantic. His performances intrigue and disaffect me in almost equal measure, and I can't quite get a handle on why this tends to be the case in just about every film he's been cast as one of the leads, though I don't feel near the same when he's just part of the ensemble (Knight and Day, Cowboys & Aliens). As Nick, there are times I related to him, others when I wanted to get as far away from the guy as possible, and by the time the film was over I almost didn't care whether he dealt with his daddy and addiction issues and got on with his life or not.

All of which makes Being Flynn an oddity. Yet when Weitz gets things right, when the emotions are true and the motivations feel genuine, I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. I could relate to the Flynns, could understand the internal battles much better than I probably should admit. This is a movie I know I'll see again; more than that, I want to see it again. It's captured a corner of my imagination, getting me to think like I haven't in ages, and for all my mixed feelings about it, those are traits I'll happily celebrate now and until the end of time.

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