It’s a universal movie truth that adaptations are always a little bit tricky to pull off, and that’s without the extra baggage of being based on a poetical book with short, episodic chapters that jump unpredictably through the years between 1956 and 2003 and a tendency to jump back and forth through time as Flynn unpacks his life story. Fans of Nick Flynn’s excellent 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, may be concerned about whether director Paul Weitz (About A Boy) will be able to do justice to Flynn’s searing exploration of grief, homelessness, and father-son relationships…and they should be, because as it turns out, Being Flynn’s transition from the page to the screen is a tad rocky.
The last time Nick (Paul Dano – There Will Be Blood) saw his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro) was eighteen years ago but that abruptly changes after he gets a call from him asking for Nick’s help moving out of the apartment from which he’s just been evicted for attacking a noisy downstairs neighbour. Although Nick’s going through a not-so-great period in his own life (he’s just gotten kicked out of his girlfriend’s place for indiscreetly cheating) he agrees to load up his dad’s possessions in his truck and store them in former strip-club-turned-warehouse-space that he now calls home. Then just as quickly as he appeared, Jonathan once again simply walks out of Nick’s life.
Looking for some meaning in his life, Nick lands a job working at a nearby homeless shelter through a potential new girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby), and soon after his father suddenly reappears, this time looking for a place to stay. Jonathan’s mental health has deteriorated further, costing him his job as a taxi driver and source of housing in the taxi, leaving him on the street. Having his dad show up every night, ranting and raving awakens the drug-fuelled demons inside Nick and soon both father and son are spiralling completely out of control.
Being Flynn’s subject matter is dark, often with no light at the end of the tunnel. Nick is still dealing with the wounds inflicted by being abandoned by his father Jonathan and from his mother’s (Julianne Moore) recent suicide, which he believes is his fault. Jonathan is rapidly losing his grip on reality while trying to maintain his dignity in the face of being homeless and attempting to reconnect in some small way with the son he chose to give up.
It’s grim stuff certainly, but the film continually takes the easy way out by never delving too deeply into the true darkness at the heart of the characters. Nick’s problems drive him to try crack, but we never really get a sense of what the drug does to his life. We see Nick’s mother writing him a note and holding a gun but the true violence of her act happens off camera. We’re told repeatedly how Jonathan’s rages scare people, but we never get to see one that truly suggests he’s a danger. Gratuitous exploitations of people’s darkest moments are never fun to watch, but sanitizing them to make them more palatable only ensures that the emotional connection with the audience is tenuous at best.
Weitz (who worked with De Niro on the truly awful Little Fockers) saturates the movie in the bleak minutiae of homelessness and drug abuse, without any fresh insights. Meanwhile, he clearly has trouble reining in De Niro’s impulse to grandstand, and the movie suffers from the near-constant chewing of the grungy scenery. For his part, Dano does a fine job of trying to counterbalance the De Niro ham with a quiet, fragile performance.
Even with its lovely soundtrack provided by indie darlings Badly Drawn Boy, Being Flynn is too dark to appeal to the faint of heart and too safe to draw in those looking for an honest portrayal of a troubled father-son relationship.