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‘Flynn’ Destitute Save for De Niro

Being Flynn -- Dir. Paul Weitz (Focus Features) -- 3 Stars

Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) and Jody Flynn (Julianne Moore) smile in a flashback scene in Paul Weitz’s new portrayal of homelessness and misery, “Being Flynn.”
Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) and Jody Flynn (Julianne Moore) smile in a flashback scene in Paul Weitz’s new portrayal of homelessness and misery, “Being Flynn.”
By Claire P. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

“I was brought into this world to write this masterpiece, and it is written,” proclaims a stately old man dressed in a regal Grecian toga as he draws on the strength of ancient philosophers like Cicero when they addressed the Roman Senate. However, this exalting image sharply contrasts with the painful reality of his present situation. Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is actually clothed in a makeshift bed sheet. He is at a homeless shelter called Harbor’s Inn, ranting to an audience while he pisses on the floor. The scene is both humorous and pitiful, as the audience comes to grip with a washed-out, haggard man, sustained on his fanciful delusions of grandeur.

Adapted from “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” the true-to-life memoirs of author Nick Flynn, the movie depicts the life of the young author (Paul Dano) as he tries to find meaning in his existence and inspiration for his writing, while exploring the tenuous boundaries of his relationship with his estranged father Jonathan. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Being Flynn” is a meditation on defining yourself, and the fragile bonds of family.  While the movie suffers at times from a lack of narrative concision, it is ultimately redeemed by De Niro’s excellent portrayal of his character.

The film starts with the premise that both father and son have not spoken to each other for a long time. Yet, as both Nick and Jonathan narrate their lives separately, it becomes clear how similar their lives are and how intertwined they will become. Jonathan is deluded that he is a great writer, and his fantasies of fame and fortune do not translate into quality fiction on paper. Having gotten out of prison, he becomes a cab driver but soon loses his license and his apartment. Thus, he begins to stay in the homeless shelter where he encounters Nick, who works there.

De Niro, like the seasoned actor he is, evokes a multifaceted array of emotions that attests to skillful character building. “America has produced three classic writers,” Jonathan declares with gusto and certainty at the start: “Mark Twain, J. D. Salinger, and me.” Even when he has hit rock bottom, he refuses to acknowledge his failures. Instead, he tells Nick that the homeless shelter is a great place for him to gather material for his writing. His bravado both defines him as a survivor who can bear all of life’s beatings and hinders him from crawling out of his rut. With this fleshed-out script to work from, De Niro skillfully creates a complete picture of denial and cognitive dissonance that extracts both pity and sympathy. From the scene first mentioned exemplifying abandon to the lost looks that filter through when only the camera is watching, De Niro shines.

Nick Flynn, on the other hand, fits the stereotypes of a young starving writer who is in need of a job and some life experience to support his writing aspirations. However, as Dano grapples with the darkness within his character, his performance grows forced. More often than not, he is overshadowed by De Niro’s forceful personality. Every time he has a confrontation with De Niro, it seems like he drowns in De Niro’s stage presence and becomes unmemorable. Part of this might be due to the film’s cinematography and lighting. While De Niro putters comfortably in the grim daylight and shadows of the homeless shelter, Dano looks awkward and out-of-place.

As far as technical elements, the film meanders through days at the homeless shelter whose significance is not clear. The focus on the endless administrative tasks of the shelter—mainly picking up homeless people sleeping outside—dominates the middle section of the film to no special effect. Even though the first rendition of this scene might be interesting to watch, it is too dull to warrant multiple iterations. Combined with the almost whiny quality of both characters, the dialogue can become painful. The best scenes skip dialogue entirely and rely on De Niro’s capacity for monologue.

Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, “Being Flynn” deserves credit for dealing with some difficult issues such as father-son relationships, class, ambition, and substance abuse. De Niro proves to be its main star and shows that Dano could learn some new tricks from an old hand.

—Staff writer Claire P. Tan can be reached at clairetan@college.harvard.edu.

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