March 2, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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BEING FLYNN:  Watch It At Home – Troubling Story That Doesn’t Go Deep Enough


There’s a scene in Paul Weitz’s new film BEING FLYNN where Jonathan Flynn (Robert DeNiro), the alcoholic, narcissistic, pitiful, self-destructive father of Nick (Paul Dano), reads to his son from a publisher’s rejection letter.  Jonathan sees himself as one of the greatest of all American writers–albeit unpublished–his only peers being Mark Twain and J.D.Salinger, and he considers it a great compliment that in rejecting his novel, the publisher termed it a “virtuoso display of personality.”  The phrase comes awfully close to describing DeNiro’s performance and Being Flynn itself.

Being Flynn is based on Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Day In Suck City,” and it tells a mostly pathetic and depressing story.  Jonathan was arrested for bad checks when Nick was just a child, and even when he was released from prison, he was never a meaningful part of Nick’s life.  He did, however, send his son scores of letters, mostly desperately self-aggrandizing, and his presence overshadowed Nick’s youth and the single mother (Julianne Moore) who diligently raised him but ultimately committed suicide.  Nick, passive and rootless, and also an aspiring writer, drifted into a job at a homeless shelter, and it was there that he and his father, who had been sleeping on the streets, truly met, and and the two began a painful, dysfunctional relationship.

 This is extremely difficult material, much of it no picnic to watch, and Weitz, whose work ranges from the lovely About A Boy to the execrable Little Fockers, doesn’t find a tone to make it work.  The film’s Jonathan is all mannerism with very little substance.  While it’s great to see DeNiro stretching to give a real performance, something he’s rarely done in the past 15 years (it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Weitz and DeNiro felt so mutually disgusted with Little Fockers that they both needed to cleanse themselves afterward with something serious), he never finds Jonathan’s center.  His work feels full of effort and yet superficial.  From the actor who gave us indelible portraits in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it’s subpar.

DeNiro isn’t helped by Weitz’s script, which while heartfelt never really draws a bead on who Jonathan is.  For all its gritty detail–no recent Hollywood product (even the indie part of Hollywood) has dealt so seriously with homelessness in quite a while–the film sidesteps complications and settles for bland emotion (and toward the end, sentimentality) too often.

Dano has a more straightforward role:  he’s the guy who hits bottom (getting to know his father leads him to some serious drug use) and manages to climb back up, turning out to be terrifically talented to boot.  Yet while his arc is the more simplistic and undeveloped part of the film, Dano’s own odd qualities as an actor make Nick more interesting for a while.  Dano doesn’t have a lot of gears, at least not that he’s shown thus far–his killer app is a sort of intense distraction that can be played for humor or for surprisingly powerful repressed anger–but they serve him well here.  Olivia Thirlby, as the only sane person around, does so much with very little that one wishes she’d been given more of a part, and Moore, only briefly on screen, is her usual expert self.

Being Flynn is a hard movie to recommend, because the hard truth is that filmmakers who deal with challenging, uncomfortable material have far less margin for error.  The work is transcendent or it’s trite, and Weitz’s film isn’t transcendent.  It’s intermittently powerful and worth watching for some strong scenes and interesting performances, without ever quite achieving a satisfying whole.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."