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Watching Being Flynn with an unbiased mind was an exercise in futility for me, as I’ve read the source material Another Bullshit Night in Suck City three times. To say I was editing the memoir’s treatment throughout the film’s 102-minute run time is an understatement; I may have developed a nervous twitch by the 30-minute mark.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the movie — I’d just hoped it would conjure the same feelings that the memoir did. I’ve been a fan of author Nick Flynn since his first book of poems Some Ether was published in 2000. He’s since moved on to narratives, and Suck City remains his finest work. When I heard that director Paul Weitz was attached to the screenplay, I was hopeful, as his adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy hit every note of the text’s dark humor perfectly (in fact, Weitz’s screenplay, compounded with a fantastic turn by Hugh Grant, elevated the material).
But here’s the rub: Hornby’s book is linear, narrative; it lends itself to being a film. Flynn’s memoir, on the other hand, is vignette-style, almost dreamlike. It skips through years, melds poetry with prose and greets its bleak subject matter with more humanism than humor. Weitz had his work cut out for him with this one (which is, perhaps, why the adaptation took him seven years and 30 drafts).
What results in the cinematic rendering of Flynn’s touching, tragic life story is a very organized parallel rendition of a father and son that left me missing key elements of the book’s metaphor and emotional punch. I’m not as bothered by the fact that the film isn’t set in Boston (which is essentially a character in the novel) as I am by the surprising stripping of sentiment that occurred when Flynn’s story was organized and compartmentalized. We’re given the tale of Nick (played by Paul Dano), a struggling writer brought up by his single mother Jody (Julianne Moore) whose wayward path leads him to working at a homeless shelter, alongside his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro), a serial narcissist and alcoholic who believes he’s the next great American writer. Jonathan reaches out to Nick for the first time in 18 years, and the two cling to each other in something of a cryptic samba as Nick dances deeper into addiction, and Jonathan into mental illness and, eventually, existence as a guest at Nick’s shelter.
Much of the film is narrated via the letters Nick received from his father throughout his upbringing (despite Jonathan never being a physical presence in his life, he was raised on the man’s selfish, sensational words). Dano does a nice job of illustrating the inconceivable confusion and desperate emotion bubbling beneath his steely (albeit, at times, wobbly) surface. I’m also happy to see that De Niro has taken on a dramatic role with some meat to it — there are a few incredibly affecting scenes, one of which involves him sleeping outside on a heating grate for the first time.
Secondary cast includes Olivia Thirlby, who plays Nick’s love interest and fellow shelter co-worker Denise (she’s something of a hybrid of a few of Nick’s girlfriends from the book) to decent effect, although anyone attempting presence alongside the Dano/De Niro pairing never has a chance. That includes Moore, who we see in flashbacks from Nick’s youth. Flynn’s mother has been an elusive, mysterious figure in his writing (I’d hoped for more fleshing out of her character, perhaps a little more dimension). She unfortunately is a bit of a one-note working mom, struggling to impart love while looking for it herself.
Those moments where Weitz falters in style are most notable when he utilizes quick edits and direct-camera narration via the characters, as they come off as unnecessarily lighthearted, almost jokey. Our first glimpse of the inner workings at the homeless shelter comes to mind: Nick’s co-workers introduce themselves or state facts to the audience by breaking the fourth wall, light and playful music pinging beneath. The environment, especially at first, for Nick, is a generally terrifying, bizarre place, but none of that comes across. A narrated observation that a coworker who used to struggle with drug addiction (Joy, played by Nick Flynn’s real-life wife Lili Taylor) will find herself back in its grip is actually delivered in such a light manner I’d have thought it was sarcastic if I didn’t know the original material.
Conversely, Weitz excels when he ditches the stylistic elements and sticks with simplistic images and raw emotion: Nick picking lice off a homeless man’s body, Jonathan cleaning himself in a public restroom much to the chagrin of a man and his young son, Jody handing Dano a photo of his father’s mug shot and warning, “Don’t ever become a writer.” Nicely done, as well, is a quick illustration of Jody’s many boyfriends that includes young Nick playing catch with each of them — the camera swinging back and forth from young boy to the next man along with the ball. There are also some beautiful transitions utilizing key words that are reminiscent of the way Flynn dances from one chapter or paragraph to another — a transition, for example, that cuts from the words “need help” to someone rousing Nick with the words “wake up.”
As with About a Boy, Weitz has partnered with Badly Drawn Boy to create the soundtrack. Unlike their previous collaboration, which encapsulated the naiveté of the film’s young protagonist and its curmudgeonly antihero perfectly, the duality of the tracks is a bit jarring in Being Flynn. There’s a more stylized, modern guitar riff used for Nick that underscores his struggles more than it aids in illustrating them. Jonathan’s theme, though, is incredible; a piano melody that seems to fold in on itself (based on the Bach temp score Weitz used for the film). It perfectly captures Jonathan’s teetering grasp on reality, and his descent into mental illness.
It’s difficult for me to feel any manner of apathy or frustration with Being Flynn, but perhaps it’s also inevitable. Separating a film from beloved source material is a difficult thing to do — there’s plenty within Being Flynn worth appreciating, despite the fact that it missed the mark in resonating as more than a straightforward story. It’s clear that it was adapted with care, that it’s intended to stand alone from the memoir as its own piece of art. If anything, I hope moviegoers are touched enough by Flynn’s incredible, often tragic, life to discover his work. His memoirs and books of poetry are among the best we have, and Flynn serves as a reminder that — despite our struggles — we can manage to scrape together some semblance of humility, humor and kindness in order to emerge on the other side in one piece (slightly cracked, perhaps, but not broken).
Being Flynn opens today nationwide.