Father and son drama an acting showcase for two generations.
When Paul Weitz’s name crept onto the screen at movie’s start, I had to do a mental check to not confuse him with his younger director brother, Chris. Unlike the Coens (Joel and Ethan) or the Scotts (Ridley and Tony), Chris and Paul Weitz aren’t as well recognized so it’s easy to get their films confused with one another.
Both made their Hollywood debuts with 1999’s American Pie with Paul getting the screen credit for direction. Its success allowed them to co-direct About a Boy three years later. Chris would then branch out into tentpole fare with The Golden Compass and New Moon before directing Demián Bichir to a Lead Actor Oscar nomination in A Better Life. As for Paul, after 2004’s In Good Company he made Cirque du Freak and Little Fockers – neither of which felt like an extension of his earlier work – and instead felt like he answered a want ad labeled “Replacement Director Needed.”
To answer his brother’s charge as a filmmaker, Paul delivers Being Flynn, a deep father-son drama, though not as ham-fisted as it could have been in another director’s hands. Both brothers seem to feel at home when making pictures where the primary story revolves around family or a close-knit group. If A Better Life was Chris Weitz’s best film since About a Boy, the same could be said of Paul and Being Flynn.
Based on Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, the film finds Nick (Paul Dano) as a young writer struggling to commit words to the page. Increased drinking and love trysts haven’t helped his writer’s block, but it may have less to do with alcohol and soiled sheets and more to do with Nick being emotionally crippled by his mother’s suicide and long-standing father abandonment issues. In flashbacks we see Nick’s mother (as played by Julianne Moore) and get a greater sense of his disillusionment. Without a proper father figure, Nick is regulated to playing catch with his mother’s revolving door of boyfriends.
Voiceovers and narration in film are risky, because sometimes they will be used to introduce proceedings and then be forgotten (just like it was recently in The Vow). But when it is used properly – usually over an extended period of time (i.e., The Shawshank Redemption) – it can be very effective. Here, rather than have a single narrator, Being Flynn incorporates two first-person narrators, with each one trying to take the film away from the other and make it theirs. It’s a little jarring at first, but when you realize that the person trying to steer us away is the father Nick hasn’t seen in 18 years, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), you understand. Just like his son, Jonathan is a writer. Right from the start he’s arrogant enough to declare that there have only been three great American writers in history: himself, and two guys named Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger. But you’re not likely to find his works in the classical section or any section of a Barnes & Noble. That’s because Jonathan is a two-bit con who has been in and out of jail. He’s a failure to everyone but himself. His solace comes from writing but delusions of grandeur cloud his judgment.
Around the same time Nick takes a job at a homeless shelter, at first as a means to get closer the non-committal Denise (Olivia Thirlby), his father has become destitute and his mental illness has begun to consume him. The two would cross paths early when Jonathan calls Nick needing assistance to move his belongings in to storage. They meet again when Jonathan becomes a temporary resident at the shelter where Nick works. Watching his father’s condition deteriorate in those few months at the shelter becomes too much for Nick to handle and he turns to drugs to feel at ease.
From the start, Being Flynn presents itself as a cross between Wonder Boys and Barfly – and that’s a good thing. Nick Flynn is Charlie Bukowski drowning himself in booze-filled binges, and his father, Jonathan, is an acerbic personality who hates blacks and gays, and is remorseless when it comes to personal responsibility. Weitz doesn’t make De Niro into a loveable cuddle bear by the end, and the film is all the better for it.
For at least fifteen years, Robert De Niro has been coasting, content to go through the motions with his choice of projects, particularly the Meet the Parents franchise and weak thrillers like Hide and Seek and Righteous Kill. He was a workhorse with Scorsese with his first career-defining performance coming from Taxi Driver, so it is coincidental that his occupation in Being Flynn is that of a taxicab driver with a conservative bent. Finally after years of comfort food cinema, De Niro is allowed to flex his acting muscles and sink his teeth into a meaty role for a change. Watching him transition from light-hearted non-sequiturs to darker territory as his schizophrenic behavior takes over is proof that the thespian can act when called upon.
Paul Dano is also well cast as Nick Flynn, and he holds his own in the scenes he shares with De Niro. Having mixed commercial with arthouse fare these past few years, it’s easy to forget his staggering performance in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. His introductory scene is accompanied by his voice, but judging from his living arrangement and appearance that’s all the exposition we need. The guy is a near-impoverished loser that just happens to get a number of females in the sack – he is good with words, after all.
Both actors go through a gamut of emotions. Nick’s self-doubt and his pain are expressed wordlessly more than anything else unlike Jonathan’s mental illness, which is accompanied with hate-spewing outbursts and defensive posturing.
Being Flynn is far from perfect as there are some moments that just hang or fall flat, but this is an acting showcase more than anything else. Hopefully, Robert De Niro has awakened from his fifteen-year hibernation from acting and will continue to challenge himself in the roles to come. Paul Weitz’s film feels genuine, especially inside the homeless shelter, and with two fantastic performances at the center it presents itself as an emotional-taxing ordeal about father-son relationships.
Director: Paul Weitz Writer: Paul Weitz, based on Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City” Notable Cast: Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby, Julianne Moore
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!