Welcome to “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” or perhaps more appropriately, welcome to Being Flynn, complete with its own bullshit and own suckitude. Based on writer Nick Flynn‘s memoir (you know, the one called “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” as if you could forget such a title), Paul Weitz‘s film sets Paul Dano as Nick and Robert De Niro as his wayward papa, the irreverent and inappropriate Jonathan Flynn. Nick’s lived most of his life without his father, a man who has “manifested as an absence” for twentysomething years, and Nick’s been just fine with it. Relatively. Kind of. Fine – not really. But things are about to get much worse for Nick, because Jonathan is about to pop back into his life – and utterly ruin it in the process.
Nick’s life so far hasn’t been that charmed – a directionless loner, he resembles his father perhaps even more than he would have even if he had grown up with the man. Both Nick and Jonathan have lost Nick’s mom (Julianne Moore, who is lovely in her brief bits in the film) and both of them struggle with their desires to be great writers (though Jonathan frequently announces that he already is a great writer, he just needs to get published). Both of them are also, almost hopelessly, alone. Jonathan returns to Nick’s life with a phone call – he’s been evicted and he needs someone to help him move, and he once heard that Nick had a truck – and Nick, struck by the sudden and precise communication, agrees to help Jonathan. But Jonathan does not have anywhere to go with his belongings, and too proud to tell his son the truth, he wanders off – and it’s only a matter of time before he ends up at the homeless shelter where Nick has just started work with his new friend Denise (Olivia Thirlby).
Weitz’s film almost immediately sets Nick and Jonathan as opposing, yet equal, forces. Both stubborn storytellers, the film unfolds with the pair of them facing off with dueling narration. Is this Jonathan’s story? He’ll tell you that it is. But maybe it’s really Nick’s? More likely. Darkly funny and eventually achingly human, Being Flynn is both a story about fathers and sons and about single entities finding their way. Nick and Jonathan both endure a number of personal trials, mistakes, and tragedies on their way to finding “great material” for their imagined published works.
The all-important “Suck City” is Boston, although most of the film was actually lensed in New York City. Weitz does his best with his locale, and most of the time it just feels as if the film is set in some nameless gritty city. Fans of the book will be pleased, however, to see that a pivotal scene involving library heating vents remains intact and appropriate to Boston. And, as it should, it appropriately sucks. How much does it suck? Nick lives in an abandoned strip club, and Jonathan eventually goes totally cuckoo. See? Sucky.
However, what Being Flynn ultimately hinges on is the performance of its two leads. While De Niro’s performance for the film’s first half is more than workable and he easily shows just why Jonathan is universally viewed as a charmer, as his character descends further into madness, paranoia, and extreme pain, the actor removes all nuance from his work, happy to portray the screaming madman as just that – mad, and screaming. It’s a performance completely without shades or any ounce of humanism – in short, it’s the sort of hammy and phoned in stuff we’ve been seeing from De Niro for years. Moreover, De Niro exhibits a profound reticence to abandon his now-classic cadence and speaking tics, which become more distracting as the film winds on. Fortunately, Dano’s contribution amounts to no less than perhaps the best performance of his career, which is all the more impressive considering that the actor hasn’t turned in a bad one so far. It’s his finest and funniest work yet.
Weitz has famously hopscotched across genres with his work – there’s been the raunchy teen classic (American Pie), the satire (American Dreamz), the mainstream comedy (Little Fockers), even a YA-adaptation (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) – but, thankfully, his latest most closely resembles Weitz’s best film, About A Boy. Both films about relationships, masculinity, and being better than you are, Being Flynn will make a tremendous double feature with About A Boy one day but, for now, it stands up just fine on its own.
The Upside: Paul Dano’s pitch-perfect performance, well-placed gallows humor, and an engaging and personal story.
The Downside: A hammy, over-the-top performance by Robert De Niro that removes nuance from an otherwise well-crafted film.
On the Side: Go explore the real Nick Flynn’s website.