Film Review: Being Flynn

Wrenching, fact-based tale is as much a look at the seamier side of Manhattan as it is a window onto the tortured relationship between a hate-filled, degenerate father convinced he can write and the estranged son who can.

If a more repulsive, unrepentant train wreck of a mortal other than Robert De Niro’s character in Being Flynn has ever graced the screen, he doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Writer Nick Flynn’s anguished journey into the literary world and the relationship with his father that made success seem all but impossible is the film’s journey. This bleak look at the hardship imposed by a monstrous parent and his downfall won’t be worth a detour for most audiences.

But ruins sometimes attract, especially when there are committed performances from the likes of De Niro, Paul Dano and others to distract along the way.

Being Flynn is a bleak sonata that takes viewers into the downward spiral of degenerate Jonathan Flynn (De Niro) and maybe upward by way of son Nick (Liam Broggy, followed by Dano) whom he abandoned when the boy was still young. With no backstory beyond Jonathan having served prison time for forging checks, there’s nothing complicated about Dad—he’s just plain awful. After leaving the family, an act that leads to the suicide of Nick’s loving mother Jody (Julianne Moore), Jonathan, forever blabbing that “I am a born writer,” falls on harder times and works as a cabby before crashing his car, losing the gig and being evicted from his apartment.

With no two nickels to rub, he searches for the son he hasn’t seen in 18 years, who, hopefully, can provide a pick-up truck. Nick, meanwhile, is also struggling but ends up in a seedy loft with a black drug dealer and a gay man as roommates. At a nearby club, he meets homeless shelter worker Denise (Olivia Thirlby), with whom he begins a tentative relationship.

Having tracked down Nick, Jonathan—a slobby mass of blatant prejudices, easy lies, violent eruptions and unending expletives—lands at his doorstep, immediately spouting his usual anti-black, anti-gay invectives.

Nick tries to help his father and takes a job at the homeless shelter. From one bleak world to another, director Paul Weitz pulls no punches in showing the misery and squalor of the shelter, alleviated somewhat by its devoted staff. Beyond Nick and Denise, this dedicated group most prominently includes shelter “captain” (Wes Studi), a saint with compassion for the place’s unfortunates, and kind soul Joy (Lili Taylor), a reformed prostitute and druggie.
Delusional Jonathan, bloated with booze and bombast, sinks further and onto the streets. It’s not long before the inevitable happens as father and son come face to face again when Nick signs in his shelter-seeking dad.

But the facility is no match for Jonathan’s anger and self-destruction; he’s evicted back to the streets and the danger that awaits. As apples don’t usually fall far from the tree, Nick, succumbing to drug use, has his own demons to fight.

Some redemption follows so that watching Flynn isn’t quite as painful as being a Flynn. Weitz amps up interest with a mix of voiceovers, flashbacks (often home movies of young Nick and his mom) and other gimmicks. But Being Flynn is mighty grim down to its pixels. In keeping, it delivers New York locales that won’t win the city any new tourists.