Stumbling in his dad's footsteps
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Mar. 9, 2012
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
That, in a nutshell, is the message of "Being Flynn," Paul Weitz's mostly well-crafted adaptation of poet Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir.
At least that seems like its message.
For much of the movie - which centers on the bizarre-yet-true circumstances of the author's reconciliation with his estranged, alcoholic father who shows up one night in the Boston homeless shelter where his son works - the similarities between the two Flynns is hammered home. Both are struggling if gifted writers, and both have substance-abuse issues.
The elder Flynn, Jonathan, played by a burned-out-looking Robert De Niro, likes his booze, which has prevented him from ever finishing the single manuscript he carries around from flophouse to flophouse, a "classic" in the making, by his own deluded description. Nick, his 20-something son (an excellent, haunted-looking Paul Dano), hasn't been writing long enough to be considered a failure. Still, his own addictions - alcohol first, then hard drugs - put him on the path of becoming his father.
"You are me!" screams Jonathan at Nick, about an hour into the movie, in the first of many such tirades about how alike he and Nick are. He needn't bother saying it. Weitz has been making that same point since the beginning of the film, juxtaposing shots of Nick with a notebook and a bottle of beer with shots of Jonathan scribbling with one hand and cradling a cocktail with the other. When you're not yet 30, it looks romantic; at 68, it's just sad.
We get it.
At times, Weitz leans a little too heavily on the obvious theme: like father, like son.
A little more nuance would benefit the film, which eventually starts to feel belabored, even bleak. The book's original title, "Another [Lousy] Night in [Stink] City," seems apt.
There are, however, some really nice touches.
One is Weitz's technique of dueling narrators. The characters of Nick and Jonathan both attempt to frame the story by speaking in alternating voice-overs. For a tale about two writers, it's a clever gimmick. But it's also a surprisingly apt way of underscoring Nick and Jonathan's competitiveness, as well as their intertwined fates. The question of whose story "Being Flynn" is - Jonathan is its subject, but Nick is the one telling it - is the film's most fascinating riddle.
That, ultimately, is the film's sleight of hand. Both Nick and Jonathan struggle with addiction and failure, but only one of them manages to get a book out of it. Biology isn't destiny after all. Nick's memoir - and Weitz's film - is about, as Jonathan is constantly reminding us, "gathering material." But it's not just life's tragedies that make great dramatic fodder. So do life's near-tragedies.
The apple may not fall far from the tree, it's true. But that doesn't mean it has to just sit there and rot.
Contains obscenity, brief nudity, sex scenes, drug use and violence.