Being Flynn – Film Review

Being Flynn poster

I did a Q and A on February 28 with Director Paul Weitz and Co-star Paul Dano following the pre-release screening of Being Flynn for members of the National Board Review. We enjoyed discussing the adaptation of Nick Flynn’s complex memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” and the ways that the cast worked together to develop the boldly crafted characters from the book.

Originally published on March 2nd on the website of The National Board of Review

Being Flynn
A film by Paul Weitz
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

Paul Weitz has a touch for comedy – his previous films include the franchise establishing American Pie (with his brother Chris), About a Boy, an adaptation which brought him a co-writer Academy Award screenplay nomination, and a perfectly adequate continuation of the Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro Meet the Parents series (Little Fockers). Being Flynn, his latest film, which he also wrote, is based on the novel “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir” – a complex, emotionally gripping and decidedly unfunny story. Why did Wietz make such a genre leaping commitment to a story so different in style from his previous work? And in doing so how did he manage to nail it so perfectly, to transform a book with almost no dialogue based around a painful relationship of loss and betrayal into a film that engages from start to finish?

Being Flynn is a deft adaptation of a sprawling, non-linear memoir about abandonment, self-doubt, and loneliness. It’s an emotionally challenging story about a young man named Nick Flynn, abandoned in youth by his father, left to cope with his mother’s suicide, alone without anyone to point him towards answers – or even useful questions. Working in a homeless shelter as he tries to sort out his own issues, Nick is abruptly confronted with his fathers reappearance after 18 years of silence. Angry and confused, Nick is determined to prove that he has no need for reconciliation. Weitz uses a narrative technique he honed in About a Boy, which begins with alternating scenes narrated by the bachelor (Hugh Grant) and the boy of the film (Nicholas Holt). Being Flynn pushes the dual narrative concept even further. As we meet Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) going about his business as a cab driver we hear De Niro’s unmistakable voice announce that he is one of the world’s greatest writers. Not a good writer, one of the greatest. Such bravado, immediately belied by the circumstances of his work, is wonderfully Rupert Pupkin like in self aggrandizement, and also harks back to the attitude that of another taxi driver he once played. As we wonder whether to laugh or cry the film cuts to a Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), a young man scribbling frantically on a yellow pad late in the night. His voice over tells us this is not his father’s story, it is his own. From the opening moments the film is about trying to understand why father and son have gotten to where they are – it engages us early with the mystery of the past and a spiraling-down present day action.

This is serious stuff, denser and more dangerous than any of Weitz’s previous work and seemingly an abrupt stretch coming off his recent entry in the Focker series. But Weitz nails it – his adaptation of the novel is clear, poignant, funny and emotionally compelling. Hardly new to the material, Weitz has been attached to the book since first reading it in 2004, shortly after it was published. The true story he encountered – about a fragmented and disturbing father/son relationship – troubled and fascinated him. He saw echoes of his own relationship with his father and was attracted to the complexity of the narrative. It took about eight years, a number of possible studios, and according to his own count, thirty drafts of the screenplay until finally being able to decode the tale into a film script that both he and novelist Nick Flynn felt ready to proceed with.

He has assembled a group of talented actors and filmmakers that belie the relatively small budget. Robert De Niro, who Weitz directed in Little Fockers, came on board along with Jane Rosenthal and Tribeca Productions to co-produce. And he brought his top acting game to the table. His portrayal of Jonathan, the absent and free-falling father of Nick, is one of his most complex and dynamic roles in years. Paul Dano, as the lost son who must suddenly confront the father he had long ago given up on, brings a huge range of emotion to his character. Watching both of these men struggle with their own demons and with the painful memories of each other – one a legend and the other becoming arguably one of the best and most unique young actors of his generation – is a breathtaking experience. Between father and son, existing as a memory of something precious that has been lost, is Nick’s mother Jody. Brought subtly to life by Julianne Moore, she is a nurturing survivor who struggles to hold onto her world, trying to fill in for Nick’s father with a succession of inadequate boyfriends who seem only to make Jonathan’s absence all the more obvious. De Niro, Dano and Moore are seldom on the screen together – which creates a longing for them to connect, even if it is across time and space. One of the most mysterious and touching moments in the film occurs when Jody finally appears to father and son late one night in the homeless shelter. A silent vision in a throbbing red dress, she is a bitter reminder of love and opportunity long lost.

Much of Being Flynn takes place in a world of violence, especially as it gets closer to the streets. Working with veteran cinematographer Declan Quinn (Monsoon Wedding, Leaving Las Vegas, In America, Rachel Getting Married) and the talented film editor Joan Sobel (A Single Man),Wietz makes creative use of film style – including the choice of angles, the placement and movement of the camera, as well as judicious shot selections – to insulate the audience from some of the worse things that happen. He places the most violent moments just off screen, understanding that not seeing something can sometimes be more disturbing than actually experiencing it. For instance, when Jonathan loses his apartment, then his taxi job – he has burned all of his bridges (though there are still more to be burned). He has nowhere to turn but the streets. Reaching the ebb of his existence (a fact he never consciously admits to), Jonathan huddles with a street veteran, watching a jerry-rigged analog television in an abandoned lot, marveling that there is no “outside” or “inside” anymore. When he goes to use the “outside” toilet, three thugs arrive and mercilessly beat the television man. We see the pipes and clubs flying toward’s their destination, we see the grotesque pleasure on the faces of the perpetrators, but see none of the blows – the victim has fallen below the camera line. Though he will consciously face his circumstances, the fear is embedded on Jonathan’s face as he hears what is happening only a few feet away. His helpless silence is the only clue that he is beginning to understand where his life has taken him – that this will someday be his fate. In a similar approach to the treatment of violence, when he still has a home, Jonathan finally loses his temper at the musicians who practice in the apartment below. He takes his weapon of choice, a dense wooden chair leg with huge protruding nails, and bangs on their door – bursting in, tumbling towards stunned musicians, and the door shuts behind him. Some might say the Weitz is holding back too much, that modern audiences want to see the violent results of scenes such as this. What Weitz understands is that the emotional and psychological effect of the story he is telling is far greater, and in many ways more disturbing, than the simplistic characterizations in most action films. To bring a heightened level of violent realism to the Flynn story is unnecessary. This is a troubling tale that features truly damaged souls. That should be enough violence for most viewers.
Weitz has brought the action of the novel to the present and eliminated story lines that would feel redundant (for instance a subplot about a series of lifeboat patents filed by Nick’s Grandfather) An effective example of this is the transformation of a sequence late in the book in which Nick uses a video camera to document every one of his mother’s boyfriends, asking them only a few simple questions. Weitz has telescoped a scene that probably put too much weight on Nick’s side of the story into a brilliant montage of different boyfriends tossing baseballs with young Nick – a different man catching the ball each time as it is thrown out of frame by young Nick. Included in this memory, for just a fleeting moment, is his real father.

Declan Quinn, who has worked with many skilled directors ranging from Mike Figgis to Jonathan Demme to Jim Sheriden, is a master of subtle color shadings. He has created a consistency of tone and color to the film – for instance using a yellow and red saturated look for the flashbacks, and a colder, more forbidding style for the late-night scenes at the shelter. He is also adept at shooting hand-held. The more aggressive scenes between Dano and De Niro stand out, especially the raging internal violence that is unleashed when Nick finally explodes at his father. Contrasting a less is more style, Jonathan never rises from his shelter bed, while Nick leans over him, pacing from side to side as he demands that his father exits from the shelter, and from his life. The film is also extremely well paced and tightly structured. Joan Sobel, who’s work on the impressionistic and mysterious A Single Man feels like an influence, has cut every scene to the essence, bringing the film in at a tidy 101 minutes.

Inherent in the DNA of the original novel is that this is the story of two men. Even with the excellent work of Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby (Nick’s girlfriend) and Lili Taylor (his co-worker at the shelter), if one were forced to pick a genre it would best be described as a father/son conflict film. Is the story universal enough to hit an emotional note with women viewers? Will women who see the film feel upset about the way Jonathan’s wife is treated, and hold the sad resolution of her life against the men who did nothing to assist? Freud said most (or was it all) men have father issues. The film resonates with me – but my sense is that it also hits its mark on a number of levels. It is a tale well-told that feels accessible because of the sheer humanity of the writing and the performances.

Being Flynn is the parallel story of two people who are struggling to find their own identities. It’s filled with tragedy but is not ultimately a tragic story. Jonathan and Nick find a way to make something of their journeys, to transform the pain and loss of their existence into something resembling a family experience. It’s also a film that showcases the breadth and greatness of Robert De Niro’s acting – the sheer dynamic range of his performance – from simple declarations (“I am one of the world’s greatest writers”) to the physical manifestation of survival instincts on the street, to raging at the world, at the homeless shelter, at his son – at everyone but himself. De Niro ranges from the confused and contemplative to the completely unhinged, bellowing, veins bulging with a natural dexterity that few have matched. It’s all on display in this small, challenging and extremely satisfying film.

Thomas W. Campbell

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