'Being Flynn' Suffers From Hollywoodization
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The difference between the movie "Being Flynn" and the book that serves as its source material is sharply defined just by the titles of the two works. The book is a scary, mordantly funny and often moving memoir by Nick Flynn that's called "Another Bulls--- Night in Suck City." The phrase is blunt underclass vernacular boilerplate that evokes not just a state of mind but a state of being. In the book, that state of being is sometimes shared by narrator Nick, an aspiring writer with emotional and substance issues, and his father Jonathan, a failed writer and sometimes con man whose most dramatic reappearance in his son's life has him showing up at the homeless shelter where Nick works, looking for a bed.
That title phrase is never even uttered in the movie, and the movie's title is, of course, evocative of something altogether more nobly soul-searching and, um, existential. Now, I certainly did not expect the film's writer and director, Paul Weitz, to approximate the deceptively free-floating stylistic and formal shifts of Flynn's memoir. And he doesn't, although every now and then he employs a bit of cinematic sleight of hand, like shifting from a flashback to a flash-forward within a single shot, which at least acknowledges that he knows that the book he's dealing with isn't an entirely conventional memoir.
On the other hand, I was rather disappointed at how thoroughly Hollywoodized the material is, almost from the get-go. Young man Nick, played by Paul Dano, describes himself as "trying to become" a writer, and is depicted in the stance that all movies that don't really much care about writing depict as a default position, torturedly clenched and hovering over a desk, pen in one hand, forehead in the other. A girlfriend returns from a business trip, and of course she's a flight attendant, and of course after she discovers a lipsticked cigarette butt in an ashtray and starts throwing Nick out, we learn that she hates books: "Yeats, and Yeats again," she snarls, throwing one paperback after another, and all we're meant to register is that throwing around Yeats is an unkind thing.
And soon enough we're in the land of roommate interview with fussbudget effeminate fellows and meeting cute with a fetching female "do-gooder," the land in which all sexual activity is conducted with the female party still wearing a black brassiere. And that goes for Nick's dad, Jonathan, too. While this taxi driver imagines the half-clothed former fare he's getting lucky with as a sophisticated beauty, a cutaway reveals that in reality she's a gapped-tooth example of what used to be referred to as a drunken slattern. Who's nonetheless still half-clothed.
Jonathan's played by Robert De Niro, and while a handful of film lovers may be delighted to see his other hack license renewed, the movie's insistent reliance on commonplaces about life in low places tends to undercut whatever good work the excellent cast puts in, although the excellent cast itself sometimes falls short. But not as much as the people behind the camera.
While Flynn's book, and life, was set in Boston, the movie locates the story line in a less specific, generic-seeming "metro" area, which deracinates the depicted events rather than universalizing the movie. There's also the fact that the moviemaking style, full of graceful camera pull-ups signaling emotional uplift/epiphany and that sort of thing, is often at odds with what's happening on-screen.
Nick's dad is not just a drunk but also a delusional crazy person with a lot of unpleasant stuff to say, and he isn't gonna get better. Still, Weitz's camera is constantly acting as if it's traveling toward a redemption narrative. And it's here that the actors co-conspire a bit. There's a scene in the last third in which Nick finds his father sleeping in an alley and finally allows him to spend a night at his place rather than in a shelter. At home, they get into a discussion of Nick's mom, who committed suicide, and there's a near-breakthrough between the two men. Some real feeling crawls out from under Jonathan's off-putting but insistent grandiosity. It's good stuff, and both actors play it well. But then the movie blows it, with a single medium close-up of De Niro doing that thick-man-of-compassion facial expression he pulls out to prove his character is softening up a bit in one of those damn "Fockers" movies. Oy. Did somebody mention "bulls---"?
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.