The title of the source material, a memoir by poet and playwright Nick Flynn, is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The title of the movie, scripted and directed by Paul Weitz, is Being Flynn. I don’t know about you, but this discrepancy in tone already gave me pause—would this adaptation suck all the bite from the book and replace it with middlebrow Hollywood bullshit? The good news is: not really. Being Flynn exudes polished, pedestrian, professional directorial style, but its heart’s in the right place, by which I mean a tough-minded, tough-love kind of place. This is the story about a boy trying to become a man while living in the dual-shadow of a suicided mother and a long-absent, crazy motherfucker of a father who returns to this boy’s life when he shows up one night looking for a bed at the homeless shelter where the boy works. Too late, obviously, to make up for lost time—the boy’s now in his 20s—but just in time to challenge the boy’s undigested notions about maybe-kinda becoming a writer. Jonathan Flynn never published a word in his life, yet even as a going-on-elderly homeless drunken babbler, he remains convinced of his innate literary genius. And of his son Nick’s inheritance of this genius.
So yes, like many a memoir this is also the story of a writer discovering his craft. Thankfully, rather than spending time watching the writer try to write, Being Flynn focuses on the experiences that engender literary insight. Nick (Paul Dano) is uneasy with any career path that might make explicit his creative desire, so, following his father’s oft-stated and, as it turns out, ironic dictum that “we are put on this earth to help other people,” he works night shifts trying to give a modicum of comfort to the city’s downtrodden. The movie’s depiction of life at the shelter gets a surprising number of things right, partially through casting the likes of Lily Taylor, Wes Studi and Eddie Rouse as Nick’s more experienced colleagues, partially through Weitz’s uncondescending framing of the shelter’s clients.
Nick may be Being Flynn’s protagonist but its star performance is unquestionably Robert De Niro’s Jonathan. The movie wisely capitalizes on De Niro’s iconic status, rendering Jonathan as a variation on Travis Bickle some 30-odd years after Taxi Driver. Not just because Jonathan’s last job was driving cab, but because, like Travis, Jonathan regards himself as possessing some rarefied, god-like view of mankind in all its frailty, a view that allows him to go on manic, fevered rants against homosexuals, women and racial minorities. Neither Weitz nor De Niro strain to ingratiate Jonathan to us, understanding that it’s up to Nick to figure out how to come to terms with his father’s less palatable attitudes. And without resorting to mere camp, De Niro has an awful lot of fun with Jonathan, singing “You Are MEE-eee!” to his son from his skinny cot or throwing a tantrum while wearing a makeshift toga. And Jonathan does have things to teach his son about what it means to be a writer. The key midpoint scene involves Jonathan calling his son on the fact that he’s working at the shelter to gather material. Nick, horrified, denies this. Indeed, it isn’t the whole truth, but, make no mistake, it is a truth, and the proof is in Flynn’s book and in this flawed but very worthwhile movie.