movie: Being Flynn (2012)

being flynnI’m super glad I got to watch this movie version of a book I recently admired, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. First of all, let me say that Being Flynn captured the book better than most adaptations do. Not perfect, of course, and not exactly the same, but they never are because books aren’t movies.

This one was an interesting experiment, though, because the book involved so much theatre – meaning scenes that were constructed like scenes from a play or movie. Being Flynn took perhaps less advantage of that feature of the book than might be expected. But then again, what works as theatre-on-the-page doesn’t necessarily translate to Hollywood movie-making. Let’s see if I can explain myself…

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (a title the New York Times finds “too pungent and profane” to print, whew!) is made up of a collage of different forms. One chapter is a list; one chapter is a long, stream-of-consciousness prose poem; another is a stageplay. Some are “straight” prose but with attention paid to setting and framing, and the drama of performance. Certainly, in the life of Jonathan Flynn, performance is a central question: he doesn’t want his audience to perceive him as homeless, as a loser; he is always reminding whoever will listen that he’s a great writer, and it seems he believes it, himself. The formal play of the book does not translate well to the screen, in part because moviegoers aren’t interested in playfulness in print. The differences between the two media are often at the heart of why books don’t adapt well into movies, or why book lovers resent the film’s adaptation.

Here, the movie wisely relinquishes some of the book’s form, and goes instead for story and feeling. Roger Ebert and the Times review linked above agree that the film ends with ambivalence, fails to commit to an outcome; but they seem to find this a negative, where I found it simply faithfulness to the true story that the book and film are both based on. Jonathan Flynn’s life was ambivalence and ambiguity, and that life wasn’t yet over when the film was produced. As Nick Flynn writes at the back of my copy of the book, “My father’s not dead yet, so there’s always still the chance the Nobel committee will call.” If the movie fails to wrap up, I say, that’s life. Til it wraps.

Robert De Niro as Jonathan Flynn worked out really well; I thought De Niro made a remarkably convincing crazy-or-genius homeless man. Paul Dano as Nick Flynn worked, for me, equally well. Ebert finds Dano “distant and mystifying,” but again, this feels true to the character as I came to know him through my reading. I wonder if it’s relevant that Ebert does not seem to have read the book (“by all accounts, the memoir is a powerful piece of work”). Maybe I just have a soft spot for Dano because I liked him so much in Little Miss Sunshine, and he looks so much like my good buddy Jerko.

I really enjoyed that the movie snuck in a scrap of that prose-poem chapter “same again” that I loved so much. I thought the spirit of the story and the noncommital, troubled, on-again-off-again nature of the father-son relationship was well portrayed. The question of whether the son is the father was perhaps a little heavy-handed in this version (as De Niro repeatedly yells “you are me!”), but it is one of the questions at the heart of the book. In short, this was a more faithful movie-based-on-book than I’d hoped for. I enjoyed it, but maybe my recent guided reading of the book helped me along.

Rating: 8 ice creams.

4 Responses

  1. It doesn’t have much of a story going for it, other than, of course, De Niro just yelling and being a miserable, old curmudgeon. Nice review.

    • Thanks, Dan. You know, I thought there was a definite narrative there. More so in the book than in the movie; but in the movie, we move from not knowing dad and wanting to; to getting that wish (in some respect) and sort of regretting it; to coming to some level of peace. I think there’s an arc there. But yes, the miserable curmudgeon is the front page of this one.

  2. good job with challenging material (sounds like)
    That was my reaction to your book review, well reflecting the complexity & depth of that writer’s effort.
    And similarly the film, yet in some different ways, as you describe.
    It’s no wonder that film reviewers found it hard to navigate BOTH to do justice to the film. Sound like you did; well done.

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