Being Flynn

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Being Flynn
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Nick (Paul Dano) is a struggling young writer trying to make his fortune in Boston. He works in a homeless shelter and, one day, he bumps into a client he least expects to see – his long estranged father, Jonathan (Robert DeNiro). Nick wrestles with the emotions of meeting the father who abandoned him and the possibility that he is “Being Flynn.”

Robin:
Based on Nick Flynn’s memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Paul Weitz adapts and directs this story about a young man trying to find himself in this cold, cruel world. Nick thinks he wants to be a writer but his inner slacker keeps him from doing ANYTHING. His go-nowhere life will change, for better or worse, when Jonathan comes back into it.

“Being Flynn” is actually two separate stories that occasionally cross paths. Nick is out of work and broke up with his live-in girlfriend. (Actually, he’s a live-in boyfriend and has to find a new place to hang his hat.) He knows he has to turn his life around so he gets a place to live, with two roommates, meets a girl and gets a job working in a homeless shelter, which he considers as doing a good thing for humanity. Then, one fateful day…

Jonathan Flynn is a self-proclaimed literary genius who is proud of saying that there are just three great American writers – “Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Flynn.” But, while he awaits the acclaim he knows he deserves, he drives a cab, drinks constantly and is an anti-social racist, bigot and homophobe. His violent temper causes him to lose his apartment and his drinking ends with a DUI, a suspended license and nowhere to live. He tries to live “al fresco” but the bitter winter forces him to find shelter. Guess where.

“Being Flynn” is a when-two-worlds-collide film but on a father-son level. Although Nick’s memories of his father are represented only by the hundred or so letters he received from Jonathan – most from prison – he is still torn when his father comes to the Harbor Street Inn for shelter. At first, Nick feels sorry for the man but, as Jonathan becomes increasingly hostile with the workers and inmates of the inn, Nick doubts that there is any good in the man. What worries him more, though, that he is just like his father.

I have been a big fan of Paul Dano ever since I first saw him in a little gem of a film, “The Girl Next Door (2004).” In “Being Flynn,” he plays a complex, conflicted young man who blames his father for his mother’s suicide, years before. Dano gives Nick full, subtle dimension and plays beautifully off his costar, DeNiro.

Robert DeNiro, for many years, has been coasting on his power and fame as an actor since his earlier years when he made films like “Raging Bull” and “Good Fellas.” Since then, he has dumbed down his acting skills with such fodder as “Analyze This” (and sequel), “Meet the Parents” (and sequels) and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” probably the low point in the actor’s varied career. So, when you see the man pull out all stops and give one of his most audacious performances in many years, you have to applaud loudly. His unrelenting portrayal of Jonathan Flynn revives DeNiro’s standing in my esteem.

Director Weitz, indeed, has two fine actors in the leads. But, the ensemble of known and unknown thespians helps breathe life into the backdrop of characters around Nick and Jonathan. Olivia Thirlby plays Denise, Nick’s co-worker and sometimes lover, who is reluctant to make a commitment with Nick. Julianne Moore, seen only in flashback as Nick’s deceased mom, is sympathetic as a woman trying to raise a child alone. Lily Taylor, Wes Studie and the rest of the cast all help make the film complete.

Weitz does well directing his large cast and the crew behind the camera, including veteran lenser Declan Quinn and scripter Weitz’s solid adaptation.
I give it a B+.

Laura:
Jobless Nick Flynn (Paul Dano, "Little Miss Sunshine," "There Will Be Blood") is caught cheating in her own bed by the airline hostess who's been paying the rent, so he ends up sharing a shuttered strip club as living quarters.  He meets Denise (Olivia Thirlby, "Juno") there and, after hearing about his abandoned background and the letters from a father who said we were put on earth to help others, she suggests he get a job with her at the Harper Street Inn homeless shelter.  After only one odd meeting with the alcoholic who envisions himself one of America's three great literary geniuses, who should show up as a guest but his dad Jonathan (Robert De Niro), and Nick has to come to grips with what it means "Being Flynn."

Writer/director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy," "American Dreamz") may seem like the wrong director to give Robert DeNiro the opportunity to actually act, seeing as how his last work was the "Fockers" sequel that have made the actor's stock drop so precipitously in recent decades, but in adapting Bostonian Nick Flynn's "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir," the filmmaker has done just that.  DeNiro so embodies the garrulous homeless man that he was repeatedly mistaken for one during filming on the streets of New York City.  But it's Paul Dano who must carry the film, and the impressive young actor has great chemistry not only with DeNiro, but with love interest Thirlby.  The film's biggest fault is that Manhattan never convinces as a stand in for Beantown.

"Flynn" relates its author's tale of a young man from a hardscrabble background finding his way in life by learning just where he came from.  Nick rejects everything about his dad, despite his having kept over 100 of the absentee dad's letters, and yet, deep down, he feels the same pull that made his father a legend in his own mind.  When Jonathan contacts him out of the blue because he 'heard he owns a truck' and Jonathan's been kicked out of his apartment, Nick's so astonished he does what his dad asks and gets an earful about his greatness in the process, but the unsentimental meeting seems like an odd oneoff.  Jonathan can't cope, however, after he wears out his welcome sleeping in the cab he drives for work, and reappears a few months later, tossing his son a curve ball at his new work place just when things seem to be on an even keel. This throws Nick into a destructive tailspin of addiction and it takes a huge wakeup call for him to recognize that history's repeating itself.

Dano only lost me for one brief instant during "Being Flynn," with a gleam in his eye a bit too intense as he observes another of his dad's meltdowns.  This young actor has been proving himself ever since his "L.I.E." debut and he lives in Flynn's chameleon-like skin - caddish wastrel, head down worker, damaged child, responsible adult.  DeNiro doesn't have the arc Dano has, but we know this kind of self-deluded street crazy and he never takes it too far although the film as written and/or edited does little too explain his bridges back and forth from relative independence to madness.  Moore's character also feels somewhat underwritten, or perhaps whitewashed is the better word, although that could be the filter of her son's memory.  Despite her beauty, she's always believable as someone barely hanging on.  Thirlby is just terrific, down to earth, no nonsense, stable yet vulnerable. Also on hand are Wes Studi ("The New World," "Avatar") in a creative bit of casting as shelter boss Captain, Flynn's real life wife Lili Taylor ("Say Anything," HBO's 'Six Feet Under') as upbeat den mother Joy, Dale Dickey ("Winter's Bone") as yet another down-and-outer and Eddie Rouse as Carlos, Harper Street's efficient ex-con.

It's too bad the film wasn't shot in Boston - Weitz and Dano spent time at the actual Pine Street Inn where the story took place and Julianne Moore was wise enough to shed her '30 Rock' accent in favor of a more muted (albeit not much more convincing) one.  Flashbacks to the young Nick (an excellent Liam Broggy) with his mom, Jody (Julianne Moore), are set in a neighborhood with a real blue collar Bostonian feel, but the current day is clearly taking place in the Big Apple.  Interiors, however, all work beautifully, from Jonathan's cramped, book-clogged studios to the former strip club turned living space/hangout.

Weitz's most artistic contribution to the film is his inventive scene transitions from the present to the past. In one, the cloud of smoke from Nick's crack pipe clears to his mom sitting at their kitchen table.  The film's editing (Joan Sobel, "Kill Bill," "A Single Man") is reminiscent of the great work done by Zachary Stuart-Pontier on "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

B+
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