© 2012 Ray Wong
Independent literary films about unlikable people are difficult to do. I give kudos to writer-director Paul Weitz for tackling a difficult subject matter with Nick Flynn's memoir, even though the result isn't necessarily an exception to the rule.
Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is a self-proclaimed great American writer. Reality is that he is a New York City cab driver, and he's been estranged from his wife (Julianne Moore) and only son for years. When he gets evicted from his apartment, he calls his son Nick (Paul Dano) for help. Nick would have nothing to do with his father, whom he blames for his mother's suicide.
Nick isn't doing so great himself either. He drops out of school and is drifting. He hooks up with a pretty girl named Denise (Olivia Thirlby), who then introduces him to work at a homeless shelter. Finally Nick finds some purpose in his work. Like his father, he also aspires to be a writer, but he has more self-awareness than his father, who most likely suffers from delusion of grandeur. One day, Nick finds Jonathan at the homeless shelter. It so happens that Jonathan has been without a home for weeks now.
Jonathan's presence at the homeless shelter puts a lot of pressure on Nick. He can't stand his old man, but he can't abandon him either. Meanwhile, he feels ashamed of having a "bum" as his father. Unable to cope with the guilt and humiliation, plus a lack of real purpose, Nick begins to take drugs to escape his reality. Realizing that he is now becoming his alcoholic, mentally ill father, Nick sinks even deeper into depression and self-destruction.
Robert De Niro (New Year's Eve) is solid as Jonathan Flynn, a narcissist who can't seem to have a decent relationship with anyone. De Niro portrays the lonely, strong-willed man with graceful skills. He reminds us of what a great actor he is, especially when playing borderline, deeply flawed characters. Likewise, Paul Dano (Cowboys and Aliens) exhibits similar skills in playing Jonathan's flawed, disturbed but sensitive son. Dano's gaunt appearance and mannerism are particularly haunting.
Julianne Moore (Crazy, Stupd, Love) is excellent in her relatively small but pivotal role as Jonathan's long-suffering wife and Nick's doting mother. She successfully conveys the character's helplessness and loneliness as well her unconditional love for her son. Olivia Thirlby (Solitary Man) does a good job as Nick's on-and-off girlfriend.
Weitz (American Dreamz) does his best lifting the material from the original book and translating it to the big screen. There's nothing wrong with his writing. The problem lies with the subject matter and, most important, the characters. When the minor characters are more interesting and sympathetic than your main ones, Houston, we have a problem. As fascinating as the Flynns may be, they are simply not very likable. Nick is depressing. And Jonathan is a narcissistic lunatic. Not to mention their relationship remains strained and uncomfortable until the end.
While the plot does meander, with the focus on Nick's and Jonathan's descent to their respective bottoms, the real issue is that for a long time there is no relief. There is no humor. No warmth. Not a glimpse of hope. The story drags us down and keeps us stuck in sad-ville. That's depressing. Now, we don't need the leads to be lovable and totally sympathetic, but give us something to root for, please. Had the characters been more witty, or at least had they related better with other people, we would have had a better time understanding and caring about them.
Being Flynn may read well as a memoir (much of that genre depends on the voice of the author), but as a movie, it is simply depressing. It's like watching two selfish jerks fighting each other for 102 minutes. That's 62 minutes too long for being with the Flynns.
Stars: Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Eddie Rouse, Steve Cirbus, Lily Taylor, Victor Rasuk
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: Paul Weitz (based on Nick Flynn's memoir)
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity
Running Time: 102 minutes
Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 6
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 6.5 out of 10.0