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Being Flynn (2012)

March 1, 2012

 

written by: Paul Weitz

produced by: Michael Costigan and Andrew Miano 

directed by: Paul Weitz

rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity) 

runtime: 102 min. 

U.S. release date: March 2, 2012 (limited) &  March 9, 2012 (wide)

 

Making my way home from the screening of “Being Flynn”, I became more aware of the eyes that were watching me. They were the tired, bloodshot eyes belonging to the homeless men and women that populate the journey home I’ve taken numerous times. They’re always there, sometimes jovial, other times catatonic, asking for money or delivering a scripted monologue detailing their plight. So why was I more aware of them on this night? It only took me a second to answer that question, realizing that I was still surprisingly affected by writer/director Paul Weitz’s (“About a Boy”) new movie. It’s a drama that does a lot of things quite well – provides a compelling and complicated father/son relationship, proves us that Robert DeNiro can still be Robert DeNiro (given the right material), confirms that Paul Dano is an actor to watch, and reminds us that the homeless out there in the streets were people before they became society’s often ignored demographic.

In adapting Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bulls–t Night in Suck City, Paul Weitz wisely starts out with a unique duel narrative (similar to “About a Boy”) that allows us to meet his two protagonists. It’s a attention-grabbing approach, seamlessly transitioning from the mind of disheveled cab driver Jonathan Flynn (Robert DeNiro), a self-proclaimed “master storyteller”, to the aimless activity of unemployed twentysomething Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), himself an aspiring fiction writer. Right away – seeing a shaggy-grayed DeNiro walk into a taxi garage, get behind the wheel of his cab, and pour vodka into a carton of orange juice – brings a smile to my face. Is this how Travis Bickle wound up? Maybe. Regardless, the fact that DeNiro and Weitz are playing these scenes straight, knowing full well that viewers will get a kick out of it, is appreciated. Not too many filmmakers trust that comedy can often come simply by situations and characters, as opposed to blatant gags.

At this point in the film, the two Flynn characters haven’t met, but you know they will (especially after Nick’s narration has confirmed the older, wily Flynn is his father). After their creative and easy-going set-up, we’re hooked and interested in where these men are going and how they will converge. Nick hasn’t seen his father in 18 years. All he knows is that his father did some time for a check fraud scandal, leaving his mother (wonderfully played in flashbacks by Julianne Moore) to raise him with a variety of rotating boyfriends entering his life as would-be surrogate father figures. All that Nick knows of his father are the stacks of letters he’s received over the years – some short, some rambling, all of them mostly nonsensical – where Jonathan touts himself as a legendary writer, always busy on a “masterpiece”.

Through the connection of an attractive new acquaintance, Denise (Olivia Thrilby), Nick lands a job at a homeless shelter where she works. While there, he meets an assortment of colorful characters that have made a vocation out of serving; providing clothing, food and a bed, to those in need. We don’t get the whole backstory on Nick’s new colleagues, but Julie (Lili Taylor), Carlos (Eddie Rouse), and their stoic boss, they call Captain (Wes Studi), all appear to have come from their own dog days and have been able to (with the help of others) pull themselves up to where they are now. Weitz takes us through the various workings machinations of the shelter, as well as the transient activities of those that come and go daily. Both the environment and the people feel quite realistic, free of the Hollywood depictions of the homeless (crazy, drunk crazy, or stoned crazy) we’ve seen played out countless times.

 

 

Nick is blown away one day at work when his cantankerous father shows up, needing a place to stay. Imagine how hard that is –  disconnected from your father, who then turns up living in your place of employment. Nick feels angry and conflicted, but he also finds himself with compassion for his displaced dad. If only Jonathan could see what he’s done (and is doing) to his son and take ownership for the pain he has caused Nick in both the past and present. Jonathan is belligerent, an alcoholic, and an unpredictable handful, proving to be a challenge for all of the shelter employees. Nick takes it hard, turning to drugs as an escape, pushing away Denise and anyone else who tries to help him deal with his antagonistic father. Eventually, Nick has to make a choice – whether or not to provide his father with the help he needs (even though he’s not asking for it), and count the cost as to what price he’ll have to pay in doing so.

“Being Flynn” shows what many people already know about and have experienced in a parent/child relationship.  As we get older, only one person is going to change in order to make the relationship work. Unfortunately, the majority of the time that person is not the parent.  That’s just how it is. They either don’t see the need to change or they don’t know how. This is obvious in DeNiro’s depiction of Jonathan, a man whose blind pride and ballsy ego is unfounded, both playing key factors in preventing him from functioning in society, not to mention maintaining a cohesive conversation with anyone. As Nick, Dano has to manage a gamut of emotions that are sure to resonate with the audience, especially those who’ve ever had to reverse roles with their parent and wind up taking care of their father or mother – without turning into them.

Both actors deliver some fine work here, building off each other well and allowing enough space for the other to breathe life into their roles. Many will be wondering if DeNiro is back, since he’s been so hit or miss (mostly miss) lately – I can’t even recall a recent decent movie of his. Rest assured, DeNiro is here, often going off on what seems like improvisational rants that befits a character that is both charismatic and pathetic. While the character of Jonathan does call on DeNiro to go broad at times, it certainly is not a one-dimensional performance by the veteran actor (who last worked with Weitz on “Little Fockers”) and the result is an impressive reminder why he’s so revered. Over the years, DeNiro has sauntered from wretched comedy to awful rom-com to tepid thriller, and although this movie has its share of comedy, it’s largely a compelling drama – and a welcome addition to his vast filmography.

 

 

Dano has been on my radar since “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood”, so I’ve been interested in whatever size role he winds up taking. I liken Dano’s role here to Tom Cruise’s work in “Rain Man”, both complicated roles that require a young actor to work alongside an older actor that draws more attention. He pulls it off just as well as Cruise did, and better yet, Dano isn’t the pretty boy Cruise started out as, he has a look all his own. There are times where it feels like Dano is playing the same character in his films, but “Being Flynn” isn’t the film. Instead,  it’s a role that Dano disappears into, one that confirms his considerable acting chops.

As impressive as the acting is here, the standout presence is Weitz, who has clearly connected Flynn’s memoir and the characters in it. It shows in the care he takes to develop the fractured father-son relationship and how he deliberately handles emotions in an honest and real way. He provides a smart script and makes some very artful choices as a director without drawing too much attention to himself. It’s also fitting that he’s re-teamed with “About a Boy” composer, Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, who delivers yet another contagiously catchy and contemplative soundtrack.

I was surprised by the way “Being Flynn” resonated with me. As a father and a son, watching this struck a chord with me. It had me contemplate who my dad was the relationship I had with him. It made me ask myself what kind of impact I’m making on my child and how closely I’ve taken on the characteristics of my father. And just how do I feel about all that? Maybe that’s making the movie sound deeper than seems, but that’s what I subjectively take from it. If I only read the synopsis or made a judgement based on the trailer, I doubt I’d be in a rush to give “Being Flynn” my time – but I’m thoroughly glad I did.

 

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

writer/director Paul Weitz and Nick Flynn

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