REVIEW: There's Too Much Being and Not Enough Doing in Being Flynn
Though it’s always a bad idea to review a director’s intentions at the expense of the actual results, there’s something about Paul Weitz’s movies that makes you want to cut him a little extra slack. Weitz, with his brother Chris, was one-half of the directing team that brought us About a Boy (an affecting and well-crafted adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel), as well as American Pie (which, despite its reputation as a teen raunchfest, was surprisingly in tune with the complexities of sexual relationships as they’re experienced by young women). The pictures Weitz has directed on his own have been either unjustly overlooked (as in the case of the freewheeling satire American Dreamz) or justifiably lambasted (there’s not much to say about the icky gun-for-hire vehicle Little Fockers). But when Weitz is at his best, his films show an easygoing open-heartedness that more technically gifted directors – we’re looking at you, Alexander Payne – can’t even begin to muster. There may not be a single misanthropic bone in his body.
Which is a way of saying that the vibe of Weitz’s latest, Being Flynn, may have a greater impact than the sum of its parts. Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is an aging, crabby, racist nutter of a cab driver who’s convinced he’s the most brilliant (undiscovered) writer of his time: He’s got a multi-volume opus — with the rather ominously intriguing title “The Button Man” – stored away in his jam-packed rat’s cubby of an apartment. His son, Nick (Paul Dano), is also an aspiring writer, and he too is struggling to understand exactly how that shapes his identity. But Jonathan and Nick must suffer their respective delusions and anxieties separately: They’ve been estranged for as long as Nick can remember, and he’s been raised by his hard-working, long-suffering mother (Julianne Moore, whose occasional appearances in the angst-ridden narrative are like small puffs of ocean air; how a woman can believably play a character who’s working two exhausting jobs and still look so radiant is beyond me).
Nick and Jonathan reconnect when Jonathan tracks him down to ask for help: He needs Nick to help him move his stuff into a storage facility after he's evicted from his apartment. (The offense: He went after a noisy neighbor with a heavy stick outfitted with two sharp nails, the first of several Travis Bickle-style warning signs that are played more for laughs than for suspense.) By this time the aimless Nick has begun working at a homeless shelter, at the urging of a fetching new female acquaintance, Denise (Olivia Thirlby, who gives some nicely chiseled contours to a rather shapeless role). Imagine his surprise when Pops shows up at the shelter, having lost his cabbie’s license thanks in part to his irrepressible irascibility. The previously nebulous relationship between Nick and Jonathan takes a more concrete form almost immediately, and it isn’t pretty.
Being Flynn isn’t sure what it wants to be about: We get lots of voice-over from Dano's Nick, musing painfully about what it means to be a writer, or even just a maybe-writer, while also reflecting on the nature of the barely-there relationship he has with his father. Meanwhile, Jonathan goes further and further off the deep end, acting more unlikable (not to mention certifiable) before, at the end, being redeemed by a last-minute bout of semi-benevolent winkling and twinkling. The script was adapted by Weitz from Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir, and as he’s shaped the material for the screen, he's made sure that Nick’s youthful disaffection and befuddlement comes through loud and clear. That may be too much of a bad thing, and Dano drifts through it all like a moon-faced naïf; he’s either giving a really subtle performance, or he’s doing absolutely nothing – it’s hard to tell. The moody, aimless, self-absorbed voice-overs he’s given don’t help much, though it is possible to feel the occasional tug of sympathy for Nick: Dano has the flat, impassive face of a doll from a Brothers Quay animation, but every once in a while, a shadow of confused pain drifts visibly across it.
Jonathan is a tougher case: The more he misbehaves, the harder it is to like him, and although De Niro plays the role with the right degree of mischievous menace, his shtick wears thin rather rapidly. This is a character who’s so much larger than life that he’s barely equipped to live it: He’s been a legend in his own mind for so long that he can barely conceive of any effect he might have on other people. De Niro bites into the role with gusto, but that makes it all the more wearisome to watch. You want Nick and Jonathan to find their way toward that necessary connection, but you also dread getting there: That means these two personalities, one rather indistinct and the other far too big for the britches of real life, will have to meet somewhere in the middle, and you just know it’s going to be anticlimactic.
And sure enough, it is. Yet there’s no doubt that Being Flynn is an attempt at something painful and genuine – the movie itself yearns to make a connection, even if it can’t quite locate the most effective channels. Some of its problems may be rooted in the tone as dictated by the source material: At one point Nick, thinking aloud in voice-over about the non-relationship he has with his father, wonders if they’ll find each other if Nick just stays in one place. “But what if both of you are lost and you both end up in the same place, waiting,” he says aloud, giving in to that kind of circular nonthinking that writers, as they’re depicted on-screen, so often indulge in. Maybe if Nick did less thinking out loud, and if Jonathan had fewer lovable-loose-cannon moments, Being Flynn would be a more direct, more effective picture. As it is, it’s a movie that’s always thinking out loud, leaving us waiting, and waiting, for it to take action.