Being Flynn Gets Human
By Armond White
Award Season is over and we can try to get back to films as part of our culture and not some meaningless race between vanity (actors), greed (the film industry) and celebrity-worship (the media) competing to see who can run our culture into the ground fastest. And Being Flynn, being the kind of movie that might ordinarily open in December to join the awards frenzy, provides a fresh start.
Despite its flaws, Being Flynn is probably too good for Award Season. Adapting Nick Flynn’s memoir about his son-to-father relationship, director-writer Paul Weitz grapples with fundamental personal issues, unlike such Award Season tripe as The Artist and Hugo.
Slacker Nick (played by Paul Dano) works in a homeless shelter and there encounters his long-estranged father, Jonathan (DeNiro), a down-on-his-luck would-be writer, full-time crank. The son peers into an Oedipal mirror and Weitz’s honesty about Nick’s weaknesses and failures make his confrontation with one source of his depression all the more compelling, scary and uniquely tragic.
Most movies pander to the youth market, flattering them as freewheeling and autonomous. The young folk in Being Flynn are wastrels, not Occupier angels. Through Nick, we’re reminded we have psychological as well as biological roots. Nick’s waywardness reflects his father’s. The father’s age and increasing decrepitude seems to predict–or at least threaten–the son’s future. Nick’s fear comes from the possibility that his future will be as grim as his father’s; that his tragedy is biologically predetermined. Plus he feels the weight of filial obligation–and need.
This is tough, universal stuff and Weitz handles it sensitively though not eloquently; his uninspired filmmaking style can’t tonally differentiate the past from the present–especially necessary for a structure dependent upon Nick’s memories of his fatherless childhood. Flashbacks of Julianne Moore as Nick’s mother are too Sundancey to keep from seeming a gimmick; it‘d be a good original role for a less familiar actress.
No serious actor is more familiar these days than DeNiro (a joke on TV‘s The Cleveland Show identified him as “great and bad actor”) who has to surmount his familiarity to play with this bum with a literary turn of mind. And except for moments of kooky anger, DeNiro digs into Jonathan’s recognizable disgruntlement. It could be chemical but DeNiro shows us the man’s moral and social fury; he‘s like a Saul Bellow scold. He stirs every child’s fear of a parent’s displeasure and Paul Dano responds uncannily. Dano overcomes his appearances in fraudulent films like Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood that exploited his sensitive look; here he explores the weaknesses that makes Nick one with his entitled yet bereft generation. Nick’s anger goes inward (one self-destructive act after another) and Dano creates a remarkable image of a young man’s crippled emotions when Nick retreats to a club, doing a choppy, repetitive dance.
DeNiro and Dano show a fascinating symbiosis; their resentment-filled relationship never goes soft, even when the actors’ emotions are tender. They’re most vulnerable during a moment of rage when Jonathan accuses Nick as “father murderer”–finally unleashing his deepest, most wounding regret. Unlike the father-son relationship in in the totally insipid Beginners that won Christopher Plummer this year’s most p.c. Oscar, Being Flynn is a truly harrowing and deeply felt filial drama. The final look Jonathan gives his son says “You know me!” That’s always been DeNiro’s gift to modern cinema; here, it’s the basic Oedipal challenge.
Being Flynn Gets Human