The tense negotiation between imagination and reality (exigency, necessity, money, time) is what I find fascinating about film production. Adaptations show their seams more blatantly, and in some cases, the source material begs comparison. The case of Being Flynn is a twisted one: the film is based on Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, that title itself a phrase cribbed from his father Jonathan. The book pieces together Nick’s life via the orbits of his mother and father, the latter mostly in absentia. Nick’s younger memories are suffused with the presence of his fierce, embattled mother (Julianne Moore), whose exhaustion is palpable. There are other men, but the absence of his father haunts Nick (as will his mother’s eventual suicide). Flynn senior is what you could call a piece of work — a self-proclaimed Great American Writer, who mainly pens crazy, ranting letters and forged checks. After years of drinking, jail time, and failed promise, he walks into the Boston homeless shelter where Nick is working, and the son finally begins filling in the gaps. His memoir is a piercing reply to the generations of failure that seem to have spawned him.
If Nick has spent his adult life in wormholes of memory, excavating the layers, director Paul Weitz apparently took seven years, and over 30 drafts, for his adaptation. The way in which the film’s title was neutered will tell you something about how the film handles its thorny source. It was at some point condensed to Welcome to Suck City, but, as Nick puts it, “that did not play well in Paramus,” and so it became the anodyne Being Flynn. Weitz calls the title change “the one splinter in my soul I have about this,” but also concedes that “at some point, I guess you have to conform to reality.” What a shame, because Flynn’s source memoir doesn’t play nicely, doesn’t spare anyone. He tears into the past with a rich and sharp instinct. It’s a tricky piece of work to adapt, and I can sense that Weitz did his best. But although the PR materials tout Weitz’s About A Boy achievements, he is also responsible for American Pie (a series that continues in its own wormhole, ad infinitum).
What Weitz draws from Suck City is uneven, and disconcertingly warmhearted. It lacks the anarchic edge, the hazy wafts of pain, and most of all the humor of Flynn’s writing. The final film waffles, relying far too heavily on voiceover narration, which lends the film a passive, reverical tone, draining the emotional heft of the “big moments.” I won’t get all windbaggy on you about the forced optimism of American films, but there’s something distressing about our mechanical ability to eff up a good story in the American movie version. Fine for in-flight filler, but if you’re going to a make a film with a sad and painful core, then make that film.
Here’s the good news. Opinion seems split on DeNiro’s performance, but I liked his bellowing, erudite take on Jonathan Flynn. There’s a bit of swagger and growl (appetite?) in it that’s fun to watch. Paul Dano as Nick is a shade paler and more passive than I had imagined, but he wears a look of perpetually bewildered heartbreak that seems apt. He’s soft in the belly, ducking his way through encounters, and that seems writerly enough. The film skips over much of Nick’s youth, but dedicates quite a lot of time to life in the homeless shelter where he takes a job (and eventually reunites with his father). Weitz keeps the minutiae of the daily routines, chronicling them with a cool eye. There isn’t really a narrative payoff, but it’s an interesting sequence nonetheless. Production designer Sarah Knowles deserves mention for her detailed work; from Nick’s grungy Brooklyn apartment (Greenpoint’s shuttered nightclub Studio B, RIP!), to his worn, black leather jacket, to the layered, deloused world of the shelter, she gives the story specificity and authenticity.
In a cyclical, “you can’t make this up” coda, Nick Flynn is now writing a memoir of having his memoir made into a movie. A snippet of his experience, about the right way to construct a prop crack pipe, is posted to indiewire, full of his wry, casually observant prose. It turns out actually being Flynn is more interesting than Being Flynn.