At times, “Being Flynn” is a gorgeous, compelling adaptation of Nick Flynn’s gritty memoir, “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” However, it constantly strains from attempting to do justice to its source. Flynn’s experience with his deadbeat dad, a struggling alcoholic writer whose aspirations resemble Flynn’s own shortcomings, takes the form of an elegant, stylized character study. But when the style belongs to the book, it shows up in the movie with choppy results.
Voiceovers, as screenwriting guru Robert McKee famously observed in a hilarious meta moment in “Adaptation,” can often ruin a movie. And so it’s an immediate red flag in “Being Flynn” when twentysomething Nick (Paul Dano) puts his pen to a paper and gazes longingly at nothing in particular while his narration draws from Flynn’s book: “What do you do if both of you are lost and you both wind up in the same place waiting?” he asks in a direct quote from the original text.
The words say a lot more than the movie. Dano does his darnedest to embody Flynn’s solemn mindset and Robert De Niro hums along with his usual grimacing routine in the role of the young man’s father, Jonathan. No matter what they do, however, “Being Flynn” constantly trumpets its status as an adaptation rather than sublimating the material into a cinematic whole.
That’s unfortunate mainly because a lot of the movie maintains a genuinely cinematic feel. Director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) uses non-linear storytelling and surreal flourishes to evoke the two Flynns’ anguish. Nick suffers from the death of his mother (Julianne Moore) who committed suicide years earlier, while struggling to accept Jonathan into his life since the older man abandoned him as a child. “Being Flynn” constantly shifts between Nick’s relationship with his mother and the tentative interactions he has with his father.
Since it isn’t until Jonathan faces potential eviction that he contacts his estranged son, they immediately face a rocky future. The situation is further exasperated when Nick takes a job at a Boston homeless shelter where a newly decrepit Jonathan winds up as a resident. Wrecked by depression from an unseemly combination of family guilt and frustration from dealing regularly with social outcasts, Nick turns to drugs, much to the chagrin of his new girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby).
Father and son, both perpetually intoxicated and reeling from failure, bitch and moan about it for the duration of the movie. Weitz, however, succeeds at elevating the material beyond a pity party through the sheer investment of his cast and a constant ability to burrow into Flynn’s consciousness in visual terms. Blunter symbolic moments — such as one that finds the ghost of Nick’s mother standing between him and Jonathan, drawing the men together with the one ingredient they have in common — remain notably warm, if not overwhelmingly profound.
The screenplay has little to offer beyond this constantly fluctuating tension, but Weitz grips it firmly, demonstrating an awareness that it’s the only source of the movie’s power. Flynn’s book, a magisterial guide to the author’s undulating emotional state, seemingly erupts directly from his consciousness with no intermediary (aside from, one assumes, his editor). In the movie, there are several intermediaries: The actors, the imagery, a decent pop soundtrack. That’s enough to keep “Being Flynn” from falling apart, but mainly it makes a strong campaign for why you should read the book first.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases “Being Flynn” this weekend, where it is likely to perform decently based on the appeal of Flynn’s book and the film’s two stars. But the timing means the movie will likely get buried in the coming weeks by larger releases and will be generally overlooked by the end of the year.