A writer and his dad, the writer
And so the book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, becomes the movie, Being Flynn. Do you suppose some water has been added? Paul Weitz directs his own adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir about wanting to be a writer and working in a homeless shelter at which his long-estranged father, also an aspiring writer, one day appeared. This affords a casual study of self-delusion and self-debasement as a matter of inheritance, with invitingly comfortable performances—and dueling narration—by Robert De Niro and Paul Dano as Flynn pere et fils.
“Some part of me knew he would show up,” Flynn wrote, “that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you’re taught to do when you’re lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.” Yes, the forecast calls for schmaltz, against which the book and the movie both take courteous precautions.
In both, Flynn gets to know his father partly through written correspondence in which the elder proclaims himself the best American novelist since Mark Twain. “It’s classic,” he keeps saying of his latest work in progress, the only evidence of which is a publisher’s polite rejection letter. When an exasperated Nick finally asks if the book even exists, dad shouts, “Do you even exist, Nicholas Flynn?”
The best moments involve that high-wire walk on the almost invisibly thin lines separating raconteur from con man, or pride from shame. Bringing this briefly into its sharpest relief, the ladies in the Flynns’ lives, played by Olivia Thirlby and Julianne Moore, casually light the movie up from within its margins.
By necessity, huge swaths of the book’s plot—which is to say, Flynn’s life—have been cut to make the movie work. It would be naive or churlish to call this a violation, except maybe in a general sense; Being Flynn implicitly endorses the bigotry of cultural priorities by which we apparently concede that books aren’t fully realized unto themselves and require over-literal movie abbreviations in order to seem successfully complete. But oh well; at least it gives movie critics something to do.
Weitz respects the material to a fault of redundancy, telling and showing, and deals with artiste clichés and addict clichés by just powering on through them. That business of the competing narration only approximates the book’s shattered chronology, a mindful assembly of subjective fragments. It’s an innately literary conceit, and the film has not worked out a clean way of transposing it into cinematic terms. Maybe there is no such way beyond the simplest: just letting it play. In addition to its glimmers of great dialogue, the movie has a few beautiful nonverbal moments, like when the elder Flynn stands among battered boxes in his hard-won Section 8 apartment, and the first thing he does to unpack is put a book on the shelf.
But the overall result seems tainted by lassitude, and it’s hard not to feel entitled to a harder try.
It is good to see De Niro step slightly beyond his recent complacency, but that’s also a reason to hope for more. There’s no shortage of formidable father figures in his bag of tricks, and his pugnacious performance here—honest enough, yet still mannered in that De Niro way—comes with a dispiriting sense of having split the difference between This Boy’s Life and Little Fockers. (It seems relevant that latter also was directed by Weitz.) Another actor might have had to work harder at this, wanted it more. Both literally and figuratively, De Niro’s version of hungry still seems well-fed.
Dano, meanwhile, abides, inhabiting this uneasy world with elegance and charm. He has a moment or two of the shouting actorly intensity to which he apparently has a longstanding contractual obligation, but also no-frills vulnerability which is nice to see because movie vulnerability usually has frills. It’s what the movie needs.
But the movie’s just the movie. When the real Flynn so movingly wrote, “Perhaps the book you hold in your hands is the coin for his eyes,” he seized upon a very special intimacy—not just between father and son but also between reader and text. Being Flynn can’t capture that, and maybe no movie can—or should.