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Review: ‘Being Flynn’ With Paul Dano & Robert De Niro Is A Checklist Of Narrative Shortcuts

Review: 'Being Flynn' With Paul Dano & Robert De Niro Is A Checklist Of Narrative Shortcuts

What’s in a title? There’s something both extremely specific and entirely universal about the one for “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City,” an autobiographical book from Nick Flynn, suggesting everyday life becoming a Moebius strip of inevitability in the futile search for truth. In its film form, however, ‘Suck City’ has instead become “Being Flynn,” which, aside from commercial suicide, means next to nothing after watching the film either. Most of this has to do with the fact that Nick Flynn, the casual junkie and sometimes poet layabout who somewhat accidentally finds his voice as a writer, is a fairly unremarkable, uninteresting guy.

Paul Dano plays Flynn, a knockabout underachiever who never quite found his calling. Falling ass-backwards into a never-once-authentic three man living arrangement, he finds himself trapped in an endless loop of odd jobs and menial labor, trapped in the shadow of his misanthropic, frequenty vanishing father. In the midst of his casual bar-hopping, Nick learns that his formerly incarcerated papa is now somewhat proudly driving a taxi, barely making ends meet, and living life one bottom of the bottle at a time.

Nick’s inconsistent altruism, which reflects his narcissism as much as his emotionally-reckless relationship with the bewitching Denise (Olivia Thirlby, fetching), leads him to volunteer at a homeless shelter, a part-time position that begins to take up almost all of Nick’s time. What “Being Flynn” gets right is the stress that comes with dealing with society’s “undesirables,” the stress that comes from working with the unhinged, the underprepared, the clinically depressed and angered. The rewards are many, but the stress on your mind and body can be debilitating. Nick’s sudden addiction to severe narcotics makes all the more sense.

Just as he’s found some semblance of order in his life, Nick finds out that the shelter will be housing his father. The curmudgeonly Jonathan, who has thrown away every chance he’s been given for booze, won’t admit defeat. Considering his downward spiral more of a plateau, he instead doubles down on the only positive element in his life, a chance to finally reconnect with his son. To Jonathan, reconciliation means a chance to flatter his ego once more, not to mention providing life experience to contribute to the various manuscripts Jonathan has lying around. Ask Jonathan who is the greatest writer with the lowest profile, he’ll point to himself. 

Once Jonathan and Nick cross paths, however, the film has nowhere to go. It’s clear they’ll never reconcile, as Jonathan is both a fully-realized jerk and clearly incapable of changing. While there’s realism in this portrayal (and, no small feat, Robert De Niro gives his best performances in years), its useless in a film that’s 75% montage. Director Paul Weitz lacks conviction, shooting quickly and moving on. The tightest of editing creates a breathless pace with the heavy lifting left to the Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack. And as for that soundtrack, well, anyone who knows BDB understands it’s been a slow downhill fall after that Mercury Prize, so you can imagine how successfully that goes.

Jonathan and Nick share very few scenes, but even the most ardent fan of either actor will have a hard time believing the wiry Dano has anything in common with the brassy, broad-shouldered DeNiro. When De Niro bellows, “I made you!” the appropriate response seems to be a question mark. They’re not kindred spirits, nor are they compelling contrasts, and this is made stark by De Niro’s far more interesting storyline. While Nick is a reactive presence in his own movie, Jonathan is a whirlwind tantrum, starting fights at even the slightest provocation despite never truly being in the right. Being forced to follow Nick is like grafting an unrelated “normal” lead into the narrative of “A Confederacy Of Dunces” to properly contextualize Ignatius T. Reilly. It’s Nick’s story, and it’s better off without Nick.

Further disappointment emerges from flashback sequences showing Nick growing up in a fatherless household under mother Jody, a typically histrionic Julianne Moore performance. This portion of the film runs the gamut of single mother cliches, resulting in a late film sucker punch that isn’t worth mentioning, not because it’s a spoiler, but because it’s an incredibly cheap tactic, as a third act tragedy save and a dramatic shortcut. Weitz isn’t interested in exploring the conflicts and issues that spring from the heart of “Being Flynn” as much as he’s concerned with placing them at strategic checkpoints, to eliminate any necessary audience questioning in favor of revelation as a narrative technique; it’s the equivalent of a tour guide who mistakes himself for a magician. [C-]  

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