When you consider all the options, it's easier than ever to check out new movies. Even so, I still haven't caught nearly as many films as I'd like this year. It's time to get serious, so I'm setting aside the next month to catch up with 2012. There are more interesting options than I can possibly see in this time, but it will be a good start. The choices will include both small indies and blockbusters across a variety of genres. My first post is about Being Flynn, Paul Weitz's adaptation of Nick Flynn's 2005 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The reviews by critics were mixed, but the star power involved made it worth the time. It's refreshing to see Robert De Niro involved in dramatic material worthy of his talent. The question to answer is whether the rest of the film matches his performance.
Being Flynn – Directed by Paul Weitz; Starring Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Eddie Rouse, Steve Cirbus, and Lili Taylor
So, what's this story about?
Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) wants to be a writer, but he drifts aimlessly between jobs and girlfriends. He starts working in a homeless shelter and finds the work rewarding. He also starts dating Denise (Olivia Thirlby), a new friend who suggested that he get the job. This positive experience is short-lived when his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro) returns after an 18-year absence. Although he claims to be a great writer, Nick's dad is actually a cab driver who's recently become homeless. He's an alcoholic who's pretty much crazy, so his presence at the shelter raises problems for his son. While his father moves closer to his end, Nick struggles with drug abuse and seems destined for the same nasty situation.
What are the key themes of this film?
The story centers on the father-son relationship and the negative effects Jonathan's absence had on Nick's childhood. We see his mother (Julianne Moore) in flashbacks as she grows more dis-engaged and eventually commits suicide. He's never recovered from the blow, and his father's presence just re-ignites the pain. Jonathan puts up a wall and acts like everything is great, but he's a mess. He gets evicted from his apartment, loses his job, and is rejected by friends. Will Nick follow this path, or can he avoid the same mistakes? He's mentally competent, but that only takes you so far when drugs enter the picture. There's no way to forget the past, but Nick's only chance for survival is to find a way to live with it.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
This is a personal story based on a real-life memoir, so it only works if we connect with the characters. De Niro inches close to going over the top, but he reins in the scenery chewing right before it goes too far. Jonathan has moments of clarity where he talks a lot of sense, but he's just a few inches from reaching insanity. De Niro does an excellent job making those shifts believable even while his behavior is unsettled. In one of his best moments, he stares in the mirror and is stunned to notice how old he's become. Paul Dano is an actor who often uses oddball quirks that alienate us from his characters. He has the trickier role where we need to care for Nick while he becomes self-destructive. Thankfully, Dano plays it straight and gives one of his strongest performances. Olivia Thirlby has less to do as Denise, but it's a key part to show how Nick has changed for the worse.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The big scenes mostly involve De Niro, and he doesn't pull back in showing Jonathan's mania. He gives dramatic speeches in the shelter, drinks himself towards oblivion, and battles with everyone. It becomes a bit much to take at times, but this isn't an easy ride. An important scene for Nick is more low-key and has him testing his writing skills on other employees. It's difficult to depict this type of writing on screen and not make it ridiculous. Weitz is trying to show that Nick has talent, but the results are pretty mixed. It mostly makes him look like a self-indulgent goofball, which might be the idea. It's wise to not show too much of his words. Weitz stays focused on the main relationship and doesn't expand the world too far.
How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
This material is a departure for Weitz, who's career includes comedies like American Pie and Little Fockers. He also directed About a Boy, which is lighter but had more realistic characters. The relationships in that film were believable and connect to this movie in a unconventional way. His style is pretty straightforward, but it works because it doesn't distract us from the characters. We shift between Nick and Jonathan's perspectives (and narration), and it gets us inside each guy's mindset. Weitz lets De Niro take center stage, and this approach is the right move. The most interesting facet is the way he depicts the shelter. He creates a down-to-earth atmosphere that avoids the easy clichés and simply depicts the unfortunate residents living out there final days there.
Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
Probably not. It's a good movie with strong acting but missing the extra touches to make it a favorite. I was interested in Nick's story and pulling for him to make it. The subject matter is tricky, but everyone handles it well. There are no major negatives that bring down the quality. That said, it's the not the type of movie that sticks with you for a long period of time. The end arrives quickly after a slow build-up, which removes some of the impact of the positive final scenes. The most resonant part is De Niro's convincing performance, which reminds me just how great he can be in the right role.
Next week, I'll join Mark Murphy for his band's final concert in Shut Up and Play the Hits.