Living in the Past, by David Bax
Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn is an adaptation of a book. More specifically, it’s an adaptation of a memoir by Nick Flynn called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Though that name has been softened, Weitz does attempt to capture the irreverent loudness of his source material’s original title. Unfortunately, film differs from writing in a number of ways, the most important one here being that the singular intimacy of a book written in the first person is not as easy to achieve in cinema, even with voiceover narration. So while heightened language or style in a book can actually get you closer to the narrator’s worldview, it’s almost inherently distancing in a film. This is not to say it can’t be done. For examples of this approach’s successes and failures, one need only consult both the best and the worst films of Danny Boyle. Paul Weitz, who flirted with these cinematic tools to slightly better effect in 2002’s About a Boy (which he directed alongside his brother, Chris) falls squarely on his face here.
Paul Dano plays Nick, the memoir’s author. He is a mostly directionless twenty-something with an inkling of an idea that he’d like to be a writer of some sort. Some time after meeting his estranged father, Jonathan (Robert DeNiro, exhibiting the Pacino Pendulum of mumbling and shouting in equal measure), who is also a would-be writer, Nick gets a job at a homeless men’s shelter. A short while after that, he meets his father again, now living on the street and apparently losing his mind.
Weitz, both as writer and director, is not confident enough to let this story tell itself with the help of an able cast. He crams his film with creaky post-modern touches like breaking the fourth wall. Twenty years ago, this movie still would have been a bad one but it might not have seemed so tired then. Contemporarily , it reads like the effort of someone who has gone sentimental in middle age but thinks no one will notice if he piles on the irony and sarcasm. Weitz pretends he’s telling a punk rock story of disaffected youth when he’s really making a heartwarming movie about a son and his father. If he’d been more honest with himself and with us about it, it might have turned out all right.
Again, the cast is both capable and game. Dano rises above his character by packing a lifetime of insecurity and loss behind his unfocused eyes. Olivia Thirlby is surprisingly believable in what’s really only a standard “girlfriend” role. Julianne Moore is perhaps the best here in her brief flashback appearances as Nick’s mother and Jonathan’s ex-wife. Lily Taylor is disappointingly underutilized. Despite all this, Weitz and his camera are infatuated with DeNiro, who is performing more than he is acting in a film that only he and the director don’t understand is more suited to the latter.
As with About a Boy, Weitz employs the music of Badly Drawn Boy for his soundtrack. It’s decent music on its own but that distinct reminder of a decade ago only deepens the impression that this is a film made and released well past its prime.
Perhaps Weitz has not grown out of touch. Perhaps he’s always been so and the only reason About a Boy was a better film is that its main character was the opposite of downtrodden. For a more believable, engaging and honest depiction of starving artists and homeless madmen, though, I’d imagine you could read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I haven’t read it myself but it has to be better than this film.