Paul Weitz, director and script based on the memoir by Nick Flynn
Starring: Robert De Niro (Jonathan Flynn), Paul Dano (Nick Flynn), Julianne Moore (Jody Flynn), Olivia Thirlby (Denise), Lili Taylor (Joy)
Robert De Niro has been marking time—and making money—as an aging Hollywood actor for too many years. The advance word on Being Flynn was that, at last, the old Indie Bobby was back, tackling a role far beyond that in Meet The Fockers. With Julianne Moore cast as his tragic wife Jody, this film promised great acting if nothing else.
Memoir—in the sad, bad tradition; dysfunctional family drama; nitty-gritty urban tale of homelessness
Jonathan Flynn (De Niro) is a self-proclaimed writing genius. Though nothing of his prose has been published, he’s led his whole life secure in the knowledge of his own greatness. Now an aging taxi driver, he reaches out to his abandoned son, whom he hasn’t seen in 16 years, to store his boxes when he’s kicked out of his apartment.
Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), his son, is a sad but poetic twenty something. He’s looking to find something authentic in his life and finds it when Denise (Olivia Thirlby), his would be girlfriend suggests that he work at the same Boston homeless shelter where she’s employed. Soon, Nick finds a kind of happiness, working to help people while falling in love with the tough but kind Denise.
Then, the unthinkable happens. Jonathan, who has lost his cab and license, ends up at the homeless shelter. A son who is slowly building a life after dealing with the suicide of his mother—yes, Jonathan’s former wife—has to cope with his eccentric, egotistical father.
Based on a memoir by Nick Flynn, the film plays out the drama of a situation that is simultaneously bizarre, comic and tragic. The greatest irony, of course, is that the real writer in the family isn’t the deluded Jonathan. It’s Nick who wins poetry awards and eventually has his story made into a movie starring, of all people, De Niro.
De Niro is memorable as Jonathan Flynn, of course. Heck, he even gets a chance to drive a taxi again! But the years have mellowed De Niro. Gone is the anger and eccentricity of Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets and the young Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather part Two. De Niro has become placid and blandly humorous. He can raise the stakes from moment to moment, especially in confrontations with his son, but, in the end, De Niro is not entirely convincing in a role that he would have owned 15 years ago.
Julianne Moore is terrific as the vulnerable beautiful Jody. You feel the regret in her eyes as she raises a beloved son without his father. Moore has always had the ability to lend a tragic dimension in her art. Here, her sense of regret is etched throughout the memorable character she’s created.
Paul Dano can’t rise to the occasion. Plain and simple. He’s good when he should be great. As Nick, playing a conflicted self-abusive poet, he had the opportunity to break our hearts. All he does is make us like him. Not enough.
Paul Weitz co-scripted this film with Nick Flynn and, of course, directed it. So, in a way, he “owns” what we’re seeing on screen.
To his credit, Weitz has crafted an inner city story that feels quite real. The problem is in the pacing and—how shall I put it?—the lack of a poetic eye. Given a true tale of intense drama acted against a tough, textured urban landscape, Weitz has made something reasonably good. Who knows if he’ll ever have a better opportunity to make a personal directorial statement?
There’s much to like about Being Flynn. It’s a strong tale featuring a couple of fascinating performances. But it lacks oomph—that indescribable effort that raises the well-intentioned statement to the one replete with poetry. Worth seeing—but the film could have been much more.