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Indie Snapshot: Being Flynn

by Ethan Alter March 2, 2012 6:01 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Being Flynn</i>

Don't feel bad if you spend the first five minutes of Being Flynn wondering if you've wandered into Taxi Driver 2 by mistake. Director Paul Weitz unavoidably invites comparisons to Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic with an opening scene that features his star Robert De Niro -- playing Jonathan Flynn, one of the movie's three titular Flynns -- walking into a parking garage and taking a swig of an alcohol-laced drink before firing up the yellow cab he pilots for a living. The Travis Bickle resemblance grows eerier a few scenes later, when we glimpse Jonathan sitting in his cramped studio apartment, scribbling his thoughts on paper while speaking to us in voice-over. (Based on what we hear though, Jonathan's mind is a considerably less scary place than Travis's.) This clearly isn't accidental, as both De Niro and Weitz are too savvy to not recognize the iconography they're referencing. Instead, it seems like a cheeky inside joke to the movie buffs in the audience, as well as a tip-off that this won't be a Little Fockers-style phoned-in paycheck part for De Niro, but rather a role where he'll be required to actually act.

Of course, it isn't long before we realize that Jonathan Flynn definitely isn't Travis Bickle and Being Flynn sure as hell ain't Taxi Driver. Based on Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (which is a far better title than Being Flynn, even if it would be unprintable in most major news outlets), the film is actually closer in spirit to last year's A Better Life, which, coincidentally enough, was directed by Weitz's brother, Chris. Like that movie, Being Flynn uses the prism of a father/son drama to investigate how the other half lives. Instead of illegal Mexican immigrants scraping by in L.A. though, this story sets viewers down on the East Coast (while supposedly set in Boston, the locations are obviously New York) and tracks how easy it is for an ordinary working class Joe like Jonathan to slip into homelessness.

Not that Jonathan is all that ordinary. A prodigious liar and self-styled author who has slaved away for years on his still-unpublished magnum opus, Flynn's primary achievement in life is fathering a son Nick (Paul Dano), before ditching the boy and his mother Jody (Julianne Moore) for an unconventional career path that included a stint in prison. In his dad's absence, Nick has been raised by his overworked mom and a steady stream of her boyfriends, all the while nursing the idea of becoming a writer himself. Now, Jody's recent suicide has pushed Nick out into the world much earlier than he anticipated and he's been getting by through a series of odd jobs. Then, one day, Jonathan contacts Nick out of the blue and requests his aid in moving him out the apartment he's being evicted from. Despite not having seen or heard from his father in 18 years, Nick agrees to help -- out of curiosity more than anything else. After an awkward afternoon, the two part and don't meet again until Jonathan turns up at the homeless shelter where Nick is employed in need of a place to sleep.

Weitz presents how exactly Jonathan arrives at this point in convincing, compelling fashion. There's not one big dramatic moment that sends him to the proverbial poorhouse; rather it's the result of a series of small setbacks, mistakes and humiliations, some of which may have been preventable, while others were out of his hands. While he refrains from explicitly connecting the film to the country's current economic troubles, Weitz's point is clear enough: This can happen to anyone. For the most part, De Niro successfully stays within the movie's low-key register, not using Jonathan's skills as a world-class bullshitter as an excuse to go over-the-top like, say, his buddy and sometime co-star Al Pacino certainly would have. (Although De Niro does hit a Pacino-like pitch at a few points, particularly once it's revealed that Jonathan is suffering from some kind of behavioral disorder.) The scenes at the shelter are also quietly powerful, attaining a naturalistic feel that offsets the fact that the place is staffed by famous faces -- Dano's co-workers include Wes Studi, Victor Rasuk, Olivia Thirlby (who becomes Nick's kinda-sorta girlfriend) and Lily Taylor (the real Nick Flynn's wife).

If Being Flynn effectively sheds light on the plight of those living well below the poverty line, as well as the institutions that do their best to support them, it's far less successful at the father/son stuff. I hate to make it personal, but for me at least, a big part of the problem is Dano, an actor I've never found particularly convincing in anything (although I did absolutely buy his abject terror of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood). There's something about Dano's saucer-eyed poker-face and mumbling delivery that's supremely off-putting and becomes downright amateurish when he has to share the screen with an actor like De Niro, who -- when he's trying at least -- rarely has an inauthentic moment. I'd say that De Niro acts Dano off the screen, but that would require Dano to establish some sort of presence first. I'm not sure how closely the film's version of Nick mirrors the author, but here's hoping he's more personable than the mopey naval-gazer we're forced to spend time with here. If Being Flynn were, in fact, a Taxi Driver sequel instead of a so-so adaptation of what sounds like a more interesting memoir, he'd be the son of Albert Brooks's dorky campaign worker who we'd root for Travis to karate chop into submission.

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