We all live in fear of turning into our parents. It’s true. The threat is everywhere, lurking in the smallest detail and idiosyncrasies; in a laugh, a sneeze, or an uncontrollable urge to give unsolicited advice to people who don't really want it. Now take that fear, multiply it by 1000 and you’re close to the level of anxiety depicted in Being Flynn.
Based on the acclaimed memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Being Flynn is a like-father-like-son story where like-father-like-son implies certain disaster.
Paul Dano plays Nick Flynn, a twenty-something alone in the world. With a dead mother and an estranged father, Nick floats through life detached – an outsider with a desire to “do something worthwhile.” Nick is someone who rolls with the punches, a nice guy who wants to strike out on his own, and, while he doesn’t let his past get in the way, has a hard time letting it go.
Unfortunately Dano tends to blow the malaise out of proportion with ho-hum shoulder shrugs and parted lips and what might have seemed like good-natured stoicism turns into abrupt disinterest. When Nick’s father, Jonathan, shows up at the homeless shelter where Nick works, his reaction is calm, collected, but what might look like defensiveness comes off as boredom, and this blasé attitude makes it difficult to place faith in Nick’s character.
It’s hard enough to believe Dano in a leather jacket, and even harder to believe his descent into addiction. We see Nick drinking a few beers every now and then, but is that so far outside the realm of normal behavior for a guy in his twenties? We never see Nick sloppy, sloppy drunk. Instead we’re given brief indicators that Nick is abusing drugs; a roommate who is dealing more than just pot, a line of cocaine here, a crack pipe there, one hungover morning at work.
Being Flynn shows us these singular moments and expects us to accept them as regular occurrences. Yes, crack and cocaine are not to be taken lightly, but you can’t just flip a switch like that and go from sober to addicted, at least not in a movie. We need to see the progression.
Of course the paradox of Being Flynn is which Flynn are we “being”? The movie is seen through a split narrative between father and son, two points of view that become interchangeable to the extent that they’re finishing each other sentences. But if Nick is too static for the character we’re meant to “be” then it’s Robert De Niro’s Jonathan that picks up the slack.
De Niro plays the real ace in the hole in Being Flynn; so grizzled and soiled you can practically smell him through the screen. Jonathan’s gradual transformation from drunk cabdriver with a roof over his head to drunk madman sleeping on steam vents is handled well with nice little touches. There is his outfit, an old but crisp overcoat that after time resembles an oil rag. There is a waitress who lets him drink his coffee in the restaurant but later tells him to take it outside. It’s this attention to detail, and lack thereof on Nick’s part, which provides such a strong argument for Jonathan as the unsung hero of Being Flynn.
Surely, there’s a good amount of cleverness here; the framing of the story is original and ambitious. Nick starts writing as way of connecting with his estranged father. Jonathan touts himself as one of the three greatest American writers ever, right next to Salinger and Twain. Ever the braggart, he takes credit for any writing talent his son may have yet never dismisses Nick’s ability. "I created you he tells Nick. "You must have talent." But the act of writing for Nick also serves as a way to distinguish himself from his drunken (unpublished) father and break the cycle.
But however ambitious the intertwined stories of Nick and Jonathan are, they get weighed down by a number of things. The flatness of Nick’s character for one, and a series of flashbacks that seems to state the obvious (that Nick was raised by his single mother, an underutilized Julianne Moore). In one flashback we are privy to his mother’s suicide, but this is revealed just as well in the present, making the device redundant. Of course, Nick’s childhood is an important part of Being Flynn, but the execution only adds to the sense of disconnect we get from Nick. Whether the past or the present, Nick is equally wooden, giving the flashbacks a tacked-on feeling.
It may be that Being Flynn is trying to fit too much into one film, or that the source material is too complex to be effectively managed in a screenplay. The film could stand to be tucked in at some places and let out in others.
The biggest disappointment is that it’s one crack pipe away from a “heart-warming family drama.” In his poem, Bag of Mice, Flynn imagines his mother’s suicide note as a burning paper bag full of baby mice. Nowhere in Being Flynn is there any of this striking, visceral grit. The title of the memoir alone is enough to suggest toughness and blunt, unflinching honesty, but the film seems afraid to take on that darkness. Rather Being Flynn feels like a thoroughly Hollywoodized adaptation, a movie that has managed to wrangle a clear morality out of book defined by gray areas.