Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 04, 2012 2:04 pm 
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The son confronts the demon of his father

In Being Flynn's central moment a young man is working in a homeless shelter when his derelict alcoholic father turns up to sleep there. Both men are, you might say, aspiring writers. Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), who abandoned Nick (Paul Dano) and his mother (Marianne Moore) when Nick was a small boy, claims to be the third great American novelist after Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger. Do we need to tell you this isn't remotely true? Despite this grandiosity ("my novel is going very well, by the way, it's classic"), there's no sign he's written anything. He's lost his job as a cabbie in Boston, where Nick also resides, and is adrift in the streets, a drunk, and increasingly delusional. Nick knows all this: he was summoned by his father some time back after years of disappearance to help him move after a fight with his landlord, and got a good whiff of what dad was like. He is struggling with his own demons, but refuses to flee from this direct embodiment of them. It looks like Jonathan is going to bring Nick down, and the fascination of Being Flynn is which Flynn he's going to be, how he's going to come through as a whole person and an award-winning writer. The ironies about Jonathan include his being a blowhard, a bigot, and a homophobe but also one who has always embraced the sacredness of the writer's calling.

Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Norton, 2004) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir and has been translated into ten languages. In this new screen adaptation, Paul Weitz balances the downbeat and the amusing artfully. Homelessness, alcoholism, and the struggle to become a writer while being dragged down by a deadbeat parent and a depressing past are a lot to deal with and still keep it light. There are good performances, and the hook for audiences is that they include De Niro's best serious dramatic role in years, though Paul Dano's less flashy turn may be the essential element of the film's success.

Our parents' worldview dominates us when we grow up. Sometimes it's hard to break free of it lifelong, and that's the ultimate, compelling subject here. Dano's and De Niro's voices alternate in voiceover, giving the dangerous, deluded dad's viewpoint added strength and emphasis. But this remains primarily the story of Nick's struggle. Flashbacks with Moore and a young Nick (Liam Broggy) fill in his youth, which ends with tragedy. In the present as Nick struggles to find his way it's his coolheaded friend and sex partner Denise (Olivia Thrilby) whose commitment to the homeless shelter leads him to begin working there, along with a remembered admonition from Jonathan that helping others is the aim of life. He is committed to being a writer, mostly of poetry, and being stuck on this calling makes him fear he may resemble his father in other ways. The reappearance and ravings of Jonathan challenge the sensitive Nick's own hold on sanity and sobriety. He begins to see qualities of his father emerging in himself. These include a tendency to substance abuse -- and he goes beyond alcohol to harder stuff. Twelve-step meetings are a part of the movie as well as journal-sharing sessions among workers at the shelter. This coming of age is a coming to terms, a making peace, and the gradual modest making of a career. In a way this can be seen as a recovery story. There are three 12-step programs that could be of help here: AA, NA, and Al-Anon, the latter being the one that saves people from being brought down by loved ones, like Jonathan, who are addicts or alcoholics.

The strength of Being Flynn is its prolonged depiction not only of the writer finding himself but of the vicissitudes of living on the street -- and the way the movie brings to life the homeless shelter with all its turmoil, humanity, and vivid characters. The latter include the "Captain" (Wes Studi), Joy (Liz Taylor), and many others who provide a rich human background.

Dano has sometimes seemed affected or theatrical in past roles. He surprises with a nuanced and understated performance that at times outdoes De Niro's and seems more real. Which is as it should be, since ultimately this story is Nick's: Jonathan is the demon he must wrestle to emerge a functioning human being. Perhaps he should not seem too real, though the hardships of homelessness he endures certainly are.

Flynn's memoir has been described as "a great read," "a formidably graceful book." and by all reports (I have not read it) is rich and wrenching. Weitz's adaptation is therefore obviously a considerable simplification. It plays out well enough, particularly through the two lead performances, but it seems like something of a For Dummies version of the source text. And yet Mr. Flynn cannot feel himself ill served in having his memoir enacted by a cast of this caliber.

Being Flynn opened in US cinemas March 2, 2012.

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