Judge Clark Douglas prefers being John Malkovich.
We're all works in progress.
"Soon I will be known."
Facts of the Case
Nick Flynn (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood) is a world-weary young man who works at a homeless shelter in Boston. His mother Jody (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights) committed suicide when he was just a boy, and he hasn't seen his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro, Goodfellas) in nearly two decades. One day, Nick receives an unexpected phone call from his father. It seems that Jonathan is out of prison (where he spent a good deal of time after being convicted of check forgery), living in Boston and eager to reconnect with his son. Unfortunately, a warm father/son reunion is made nearly impossible by Jonathan's overbearing personality. Things go rather badly between the pair, but it gets even worse when Jonathan appears at the homeless shelter where Nick works and declares that he doesn't have a place to live. So begins a lengthy, complicated journey between two bitter, troubled people.
Paul Weitz's Being Flynn is adapted from a memoir penned by the real-life Nick Flynn, and its primary flaw is that the author of the story isn't able to regard his subject with much objectivity (though which member of the Flynn family is actually the focus of the story is a notion the film playfully tinkers with via dueling narration from Dano and De Niro). It contains a handful of powerful moments that feel immensely raw and personal, but it also contains a good deal of less-than-involving filler that probably seems of much greater interest to Nick Flynn than it will to those observing his life story.
Let's start with what works: the relationship between Nick and Jonathan. De Niro is tremendously effective as a man so convinced of his own greatness that no one could possibly bear to be around him for any length of time, which may explain why he finds himself in such dire states during this late stage of life. "There have only been three great American writers," Jonathan declares, "Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and me. Everything I write is a masterpiece." Even the praise he grants his son from time to time is insufferable: he declares that Nick's writing is pretty good, but that's only to be expected because he shares DNA with the world's greatest living writer. De Niro's self-absorbed arrogance is the film's driving force, and Dano handles the conflicting anger, pity and bitterness with nuance and skill. During the sparring scenes between the two actors, the films revs to life and becomes quite riveting.
Unfortunately, for approximately half of its running time, the film strands Dano in a series of vastly less interesting subplots. We see Nick's on-and-off relationship with his wary girlfriend Denise (Olivia Thirlby, Juno), his slow-but-steady personal growth as he becomes invested in the lives of the homeless people he works with and his increasingly problematic struggles with drug addiction. Much of this stuff feels like like a warmed-over potpourri of scenes from more compelling indie dramas, and Dano's mopey screen persona is much less interesting without De Niro's much more forceful turn as contrast (consider how well he meshes with the overpowering Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood or with the blustery Kevin Kline in The Extra Man).
The actual title of Flynn's memoir is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a title that matches the flinty tone of the film's stronger scenes. It's certainly a more memorable name than the nondescript Being Flynn, but perhaps the latter title is better-suited to a movie that seems to lack the courage to really embrace its most confrontational and distinctive elements. Paul Weitz's direction is certainly a step up from his work on Little Fockers, but too often it feels weary and uninspired (accompanied by a Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack that is vastly less involving and memorable than the one the same singer/songwriter provided for Weitz's charming comedy About a Boy).
Still, it's almost refreshing to be able to report that Robert De Niro seems more involved and focused than anyone else in the movie, when the opposite has generally been true in much of De Niro's recent work. When he can find the right material, he is still capable of delivering tremendous work (as evidenced in such overlooked efforts as Stone and Everybody's Fine). In this film, he demonstrates an aggressive self-assurance and monotone iciness that occasionally reminds us of Travis Bickle (a notion highlighted even further when we notice that De Niro works as a cab driver during the film's opening act). He is filled with hatred for assorted minority groups, and horrifically racist and homophobic slurs (delivered with genuine spite rather than jokey boorishness) come pouring out of him as easily as long-winded essays of self-praise. However, De Niro effectively manages to make us feel empathy for this loathsome man simply by quietly demonstrating just how much of Jonathan's haughty behavior is rooted in pathetic delusions. From start to finish, the film's handling of his character avoids cliched developments and easy answers, and that's an achievement worth nothing.
Being Flynn (Blu-ray) offers a satisfying 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that captures the film's subdued energy with clarity and depth. The palette tends to be low-key and drab (it's certainly a much different portrait of Boston than the one presented in The Town), but the level of detail is stellar throughout and all of the softness seems to be built into the film itself. Flesh tones are warm and natural throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also stellar, with rich dialogue and a robust musical score mixing quite superbly. While I wish the music were a little less mopey and generic, the mix itself is strong. The only supplement is a disposable EPK-style featurette called "The Heart of Being Flynn."
Being Flynn is worth noting as a reminder of just what a fine actor Robert De Niro still is (even if he frequently seems to be sleepwalking through many of his parts these days). It's a tremendous performance wrapped in an otherwise mediocre film. Too bad.
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