In Home Viewings: "Being Flynn"

Like many men of his generation, Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is defined by his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro). Jonathan is a racist, a homophobe, and a drunk and he abandoned Nick and his mother (Julianne Moore) when Nick was only a small boy, communicating with his son only through letters. The only bonds these two share are blood and a preoccupation with writing. But despite his disgust for the man, Nick never can quite shake the need to live up to his father’s image, even if that image is completely fabricated. After nearly twenty years of silence, Jonathan reaches out to Nick in need of a favor and almost out of curiosity more than anything else, Nick lends a hand and suddenly finds himself interacting with a man he both hardly knows and knows all too well. Before long, Jonathan has been forced to take up residence in the homeless in which Nick works, forcing the younger Flynn to take a long and painful trip down the path to internal peace with both his father and himself.

Being Flynn is based on the memoir of the real-life Nick Flynn, who worked as a social worker in a Boston homeless shelter in the late ’80s where he ended up under the same roof as his father. The tale of the Flynns is a complex one to say the least and it is presented here in a style that pulls no punches. Indeed, Being Flynn is much more difficult to watch that I expected going in. Jonathan Flynn is, for lack of a better, family-friendly term, a miserable old coot, a holdover from a different time who has never adjusted to the world around him. On top of his vocal racism and homophobia, he is thoroughly arrogant in the worst way possible: he’s never accomplished anything with his life and yet he expects others to treat him as if he has. In Jonathan’s mind, there have only been three great American writers and he is one of them, despite never having had a work published. Worse yet, a life of poor choices and weighty entitlement have only aided in the speed with which his brain is deteriorating, leading Jonathan to lash out violently in both word and action. In short, he is an impossible character to love and even to feel pity for him proves difficult. In the midst of this stands Nick, torn between the childhood need for a father and the adult reason that tells him to kick the man to the curb. He simultaneously hates his father and desires his approval. This dynamic creates a tense, painful atmosphere that made it a challenge for me to sit still without squirming. To be honest with you, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

On the one hand, it could be argued that director Paul Weitz’s goal is to stick the viewer squarely in the middle of the awkward and terse central relationship and force the audience to engage. In this way, Being Flynn is a great success. But on the other hand, being this close to the fray, so to speak, also forces the viewer to react to Jonathan in a personal nature. For me, this led to the overwhelming feeling that Jonathan would deserve whatever fate befell him and stripped me of any emotional attachment I might have had to his plight. Being Flynn should be relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with his or her relationship with a parent but instead I found myself sympathizing some for Nick and feeling nothing beyond “good riddance” for Jonathan.

That’s a shame, too, because this is without question the most significant role De Niro has taken on in well over a decade. This might be his best performance since 1996’s Sleepersand it is a fantastic, hopeful sight to see him go back to something worthwhile. Despite nearly 15 years of utter mediocrity, I am still of the opinion that when given a reason to invest, De Niro is one of the five best actors in the industry, only he keeps taking awful role after awful role. He does an excellent job of fully committing to Jonathan, creating a memorable character, even if it is memorable for being a wretched human. Likewise, Dano is very good in his role and brings a lot of realism to the part. In the hands of another director (not necessarily better hands, just different), Being Flynn might have turned into a showcase piece for Dano, for which I could see a world in which he would garner award attention. As it is, however, De Niro overshadows him and perhaps this keeps Dano (and Nick) from reaching his full potential. Being Flynn is an interesting film and one that is almost as tough to grade as it is to watch. At times it makes a push to point itself toward “great” but more often than not I felt it floundered despite the best efforts of cast and crew.