Being Flynn deals with an ancient and important question: Will we become our parents?
This question can manifest itself in different ways. In the case of aspiring writer Nick Flynn (played by Paul Dano, whom you may remember from Little Miss Sunshine), he wants to know whether his father’s madness, vices and sins will consume his life to the point where he resembles the monster in his blood. It should be said, the movie is based on a true story — Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by playwright and poet Nick Flynn.
Some of our species’ early attempts at literature give a grim view of what can happen to children engendered by those who sin. Exodus 34:7 reads: “He [God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
From a NASA-given perspective, it becomes difficult to believe that undesirable family traits can stain a family for something close to half a century. But up close, when you’re stuck between a mirror and monster, picking out similarities can, unfortunately, be much easier.
In case of poor Nick, it becomes especially difficult because he and his father (Jonathan Flynn) share a life-consuming problem: being a writer.
Jonathan (played masterfully by Robert De Niro) is a great storyteller, or at least he says so. To exercise his gift and perhaps mine material for his masterpiece, he abandoned Nick and the boy’s mother (Julianne Moore) in order to write and fill a series of odd jobs.
When we meet Jonathan in the movie, he’s a cab driver, a drinker (orange juice, vodka) and a bigot. He enjoys telling his passengers exactly where he’ll shove his nail-toothed baseball bat if anyone dares threaten him, especially if they are black or gay.
That baseball bat ends up destroying his neighbor’s drum set, and the great storyteller gets kicked out of his apartment. This forces Jonathan to call his son, whom he hasn’t seen in say 16 years, so that he might store his stuff somewhere.
Jonathan burdens his son with his baggage both literally and metaphorically. With energy from his infinite well of pride, Jonathan starts living out of his cab. For a while, this works; but after getting arrested for drunk driving, he starts sleeping on the street.
Nick, already reeling from just seeing his father again, finds himself even more troubled when Jonathan shows up at the homeless shelter where he recently started working. Nick tries to man up and handle the trauma of seeing his father: who can be both charming and lucid, but can also quickly morph into a racist, homophobe megalomaniac.
The emotional exhaustion of this reunion causes Nick to drink heavily, snort cocaine and even smoke crack. And although he’s a natural poet, he doesn’t turn to writing to vent his frustration. For even writing scares him: the act connects him to his father and also reminds him of his mother, who killed herself after reading Nick’s first and incomplete short story.
However, Nick is not weak. His presence of mind and the razor-sharp honesty of his friend/love interest (played by Olivia Thirlby, who’s outrageously cute with short hair) force him to reconsider his life and realize that he is not his father.
In this way, Nick – whose strength and openness Dano expresses wonderfully — is able to pass over the shadow of addition and despair. And with both time and poetry, he manages to build a relationship with his father. That, however, is not without its complications.
My only reservations on Being Flynn stem from its bookishness. This is not to say it’s pretentious, it just smacks of something literary. To be fair, it did come from a book; but I would have liked to see something more adapted to the screen, something with a few more cinematic flourishes. But’s not much against it, really.
If you want another reason to see why De Niro is brilliant, see Being Flynn. If you like stories about writers, the movie should please. And if you’ve ever wondered, as I have, if a habit or disease in your lineage might derail your life, see that such vices (or heavenly imposed punishments) may be overcome.
Being Flynn is directed by Paul Weitz. It’s playing at the Lagoon Cinema.