Brimming with conviction, he gives the first frame its opening words: “America has produced only three classic writers – Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me.” The “me” is the speaker, Jonathan Flynn. The movie is Being Flynn, based on the memoir by Jonathan’s son Nick.
And the actor is Robert De Niro, whose character here allows him to do two things he hasn’t done in some considerable time: (a) drive a taxi cab and (b) play a substantial dramatic role. Soon enough Jonathan will lose that cab licence, but I’m happy to report that De Niro hasn’t lost his chops. At least not quite.
As filmed by director Paul Weitz, the memoir is a study in fearful symmetry, a parallel tale of two lives: the bombastically wayward father and the son who’s deathly afraid of becoming him, of seeing his genetic inheritance morph from paternal hatred into self-hatred.
The parallelism begins as a cross-cutting expedition into their separate but connected existences. Separate, because they haven’t seen each other in 18 years, when Jonathan abandoned the boy to be raised by his mother. Yet connected because, well, such is the story.
So the similarities emerge. Both are aspiring writers and both are unpublished, albeit with a crucial difference – the elder fills volumes in the firm conviction that he’s an artistic genius; the younger scribbles tentatively in the nagging suspicion that he’s as deluded as his dad.
Right off, both get evicted from their apartments, the one turfed out by a landlord fed up with his violent streak, the other kicked out by a girlfriend impatient with his passive drifting. Nick relocates and then, out of the blue, receives a phone call from Jonathan asking for help to transport his scant belongings into storage. The meeting is understandably awkward for the son, but not the father, who’s incapable of embarrassment and bereft of shame. His parting is as breezy as his arrival: “ Au revoir, then.”
Of course, when Nick lands a job at a homeless shelter, while Jonathan free falls from sleeping in his cab to a park bench to an open grate blowing hot air into the frigid night, it’s obvious that the parallel lines are poised to intersect. Yes, the father checks into the shelter, minus his faithful mickey of vodka but still drinking deep from his endless stores of bravado. Along with his co-workers, Nick watches him spin out of control, whereupon the symmetry starts up again. The son takes to slaking his despair in the same way that his father fuels his illusions – with booze chased by solitude.
This seems schematic because it is – too much so, as if the script is overeager to stuff life’s messiness into a neat literary construct. And the flashbacks to Nick’s mother (Julianne Moore), meant to add context, have the opposite effect. They play like thin asides, just brief tangents on an underdeveloped storyline.
As for the performances, De Niro worked with Weitz on Little Fockers and, early on, I’m afraid it shows – he’s mugging broadly again. Luckily, Jonathan’s declining fortunes allow De Niro to settle more deeply into the role. Here’s where the actor struts his stuff, finding a crucial element of pathos without sentimentalizing a thoroughly dislikeable character.
By contrast, Paul Dano serves up the son with a perpetually numbed expression that borders on blankness. The motivation is good, but the result isn’t: In his eagerness to show Nick desperately distancing himself from his father, Dano has a regrettable tendency to distance himself from the audience.
After all this down-and-outness, the ending feels abrupt and coy. Since we already know that Nick survived to write the memoir that prompted the movie, Jonathan’s fate is the most intriguing. That’s when it struck me. In this tale of two lives, Being Flynn gets the emphasis wrong. The success that has many fathers is altogether predictable; it’s the despicable orphan of failure who has us in his thrall.
- Directed and written by Paul Weitz
- Starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars