To Help Other People
Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby, Julianne Moore, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Dale Dickey, Victor Rasuk
US theatrical: 2 Mar 2012 (Limited release)
“What makes you want to work with the homeless?” asks Captain (Wes Studi). The kid splayed in the chair before him, Nick (Paul Dano), looks surprised to be asked, then conjures a reason: he wants to help other people (because his dad once told him, “We’re put on this earth to help other people”), he’s looking for a job that’s “more meaningful.” Captain peers at him, then describes his own route to the job: once a guest, then a worker at the Harbor Street shelter, he went on to a successful career and then came back. Because, he points out, you never know how close you are to needing help, to being homeless. Nick looks at him blankly. Still, Captain gives him a job, because the shelter always needs help.
This scene comes early in Being Flynn, and it tells you what’s coming. First, Nick is embarking on a hard road to enlightenment, as that’s what homeless shelters provide for wannabe artists in the movies. And second, Wes Studi is excellent, and you need to savor his moments on screen because they will be few. His casting here is striking, not only because he’s so rarely granted a role that is not conceived as “Native American,” but also because he’s playing a guy who was once homeless, a population that is, of course, disproportionately of color.
It’s nice for Nick that Captain is available to help him along his hard road. Especially since he’s in need of what he calls “father figures,” seeing as his own dad, Jonathan (Robert De Niro) is not even close to being one—a point underlined in a clever sequence where the child Nick (Liam Broggy) is playing catch in the backyard with a series of stand-ins, men who slept with his mom Jody (Julianne Moore), each coming into frame as repeated swish-pans follow the ball. The metaphor is corny enough to make the point, that the boy missed out on an ideal childhood when his dad abandoned the family, and that his mom worked two jobs and still played catch too.
Here again, though, the movie turns itself upside down to keep focused on the father-son story. For as soon as Nick notes how much he loved his mom, you find out she’s also left him with a terrible burden, that is, her suicide. Jonathan ascribes this to her weakness, her difference from him and Nick, who are “survivors,” and you never know enough about her to think otherwise. Instead, you read her through Nick’s mostly charitable memories and Jonathan’s brutal rants: neither man is able to see himself apart from her, but she is this movie’s aching, horrible gap, a cypher-cum-fantasy the men can neither comprehend nor forgive.
Based on Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the film stays titled focused on its Nick, in particular his relationship with Jonathan, a vicious bigot and a drunk, certain of his own genius and determined to make everyone else feel the blunt-instrument effects of his superiority. As the film begins, both father and son are telling their stories, in dueling narrations, each scribbling in a journal and claiming his version is the true one, or at least the most well-written. It happens they both end up at Harbor Street, where Nick is working and his father is staying.
Before then, dad explains, he’s spent (off-screen) time in prison for forging checks (the ideal crime for a liar who hates himself) and also some (on-screen) time driving a cab around an unnamed city. The scenes showing him at work are surely Being Flynn‘s most resonant and weird, as they recall Travis Bickle, gulping liquor, gazing into his rearview mirror, and cursing the “queers” and “blacks” on the night streets.
But if Taxi Driver uses Travis to challenge viewers, to make them uncomfortable about how they identify with self-proclaimed heroes, Being Flynn offers a much easier set of non-decisions. Nick does struggle a bit—with addiction, with writing, and with commitment (concerning his coulda-been great girlfriend and coworker at the shelter, played by Olivia Thirlby in hip fingerless gloves)—but he gets to feel redeemed with little apparent effort (and several montages). He finds AA after just one terrible night of reeling and smoking crack, a descent marked by his black drug-dealer roommate (Chris Chalk) literally looming over him on a stairway. He finds a lovely wife (also black, so you know he’s not racist like Jonathan, even if the movie hasn’t figured out its stereotypes), and he finds out that he can teach and write and even be published.
Nick’s successes indicate that he isn’t his father after all. Instead, as he watches Jonathan collapse into himself and also take out his anger on everyone around him, Nick sees what he might have been, perhaps, had he not absorbed so much guilt. This easy-bake plotting also indicates something else. Being Flynn is not about being homeless, or about helping people who are homeless. It’s not about the project Captain lays out or even about Nick not comprehending that project. It’s a much more familiar story, about another father and son, another artist as a young man, another white kid’s redemption. The other people remain that way.