A story about family and coping with the unavoidable bonds between us, Being Flynn is, in short, about accepting who you are so you can try to fix your own problems. Adapted from Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bulls**t Night in Suck City” the film is about Nick and his father going a very long way to come to terms with one another. You can try to run from your family but you can’t run from DNA and being family means they butt heads…a lot. That tends to happen with movie families but these are real people with real problems. It can be morbidly funny and Nick’s writing/personal experiences yield a more bitter than sweet film but sometimes you have to laugh to get through the really rough patches in life. The story is not a picker upper but it has plenty of emotional and quirky bits to keep it from being dark. In addition, although the characters’ lives are anything but enviable, it’s the performances from De Niro and Dano that help make this story appealing.
Nick has not seen his father Jonathan in 17 years. Always flighty and full of self-important delusions, it’s a wonder Jonathan stuck around with Nick and his mother as long as he did. As the years went by, Nick learned self-reliance and, save for some very brief time spent with his mom’s boyfriends, for better or worse he’s become his own person. While Nick’s life isn’t optimal, the last person he expected to hear on the other end of the phone one day was his estranged father Jonathan. He calls not to rekindle, but merely for some help moving. As soon as they part ways Nick thinks that’s the last he’ll see of his father. That is until he walks into the homeless shelter where Nick works looking for a place to stay.
We all have our problems with family members but to Nick re-encountering his father in such a way is probably about as surreal an experience as one can have. Jonathan, not out to win any Father of the Year Awards is not just arrogant, he’s also a former criminal. Contending with trouble in his own life, Nick (portrayed wonderfully by Paul Dano) wrestles with building on the shaky but improving foundation he’s started to lay versus risking it all by reaching out to his dad. His compassion is more out of pity than anything else but their respective hard times get even tougher as their unstable worlds merge. Jonathan is delusional and more than a little crazy, but the flashbacks in the film show this is nothing new. We see in Nick’s flashbacks the constant disappointment Jonathan has always been. It helps ground and establish the father and son and help effectively show that these two aren’t having trouble, no, to them trouble is a way of life. The story flips back and forth between their respective points of view showing just how parallel their lives really are. They’re both directionless and struggling to staying afloat.
But that might make you think that if they get together all would be well. Nope, life doesn’t let people off that easy. Far from being each other’s rock Jonathan sports an unjustifiably holier than thou persona that may or not be attributed to a mental condition. With him, everything is a struggle but really he is angry at his own failures. In turn he becomes his own enabler as we see that he’s a compulsive liar. De Niro does something great with the role and turns a very unsympathetic into something almost charming. He’s such a bitter and off-putting man who might start to sort his problems out if he wasn’t preoccupied inflating his character’s ego all the time. It’s tough to watch people who just can’t be helped. These are the accounts from Flynn’s memoir and the story of father and son are presented about as honest, frank and free of sugar coating as anything you’d find in the Criterion Collection. It’s apparently real and feels every bit of it.
Paul Dano, playing Flynn, seems to bleed his character. Nick has been so let down by his father that he’s forgotten he has one. Authors struggle to find their voice and in the end channel their experiences and write what they know. For years he’s been contending with the death of one parent but as Jonathan has been slipping for years its like Nick had no one to raise him. After years of searching he finds something worthwhile and it ends up giving hope and purpose. But as soon as he starts to find his feet his troubled father appears and keeps him from moving forward. It’s through this that he begins to find that voice and Dano acts out the memoir superbly against De Niro. They very quickly and convincingly come across like father and son. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a weighty De Niro performance people will be glad that he got the Meet the Parents movies out of his system. Playing Jonathan Flynn he delivers some great lines such that his performance could be seen as a springboard for a De Niro revival. Well one would hope anyway.
The story, even with an almost obligatory and rushed resolution, works. De Niro, in probably the roughest shape we’ve seen him is still mesmerizing. Exhibiting the testy and erratic persona of his character he and Dano go at it and you can see sparks as the two try harder hate each other than they do to like each other. Though Jonathan lives in constant denial and perpetual delusion and it’s great watching because you never know where his character is going to go. Will he be timid, funny or all out crazy? Like a time bomb he can go off at any second and it’s that spontaneity that pulls you into the story. But there are moments of calm in the storm and De Niro spouts inspirational tidbits that don’t sound entirely crazy. For example, Nick cavalierly tells his dad he’s at the shelter because he’s gathering material. To which Jonathan responds that “Life is gathering material“. It’s there that Nick starts to see that his father isn’t completely lost, but he’s still too stubborn to take help and the two must give up on the other for them to eventually come back to terms.
De Niro rants, raves and gloriously unravels in Being Flynn. As he’s playing a real character, one who is very troubled and probably has given others more grief than he’s given himself, Being Flynn doesn’t soft soap anything. Dealing with family issues, there’s a macabre duality where Nick finds that the more he tries to distance himself from Jonathan the more they slope down in tandem. They aren’t people breaking, they are already broken. It just takes the people a while to know it. It’s gets even tougher for Jonathan (and Nick) to find the way out of his own fog because sometimes people hold onto pride longer than they hold onto hope. There’s no real closure but lives that flitter in and out do eventually come full circle. Even though it’s a rough tale of an ill-fated father and son, with actors like Dano and De Niro you might not find too much trouble going full circle with them and their characters.