As a film about poverty, Being Flynn at least conveys the great field-leveling of a societal epidemic, placing newly laid-off businessmen alongside drunken, unshaved archetypes, and expressing the sad humility that’s firmly tied to this very relevant problem. An adaptation of poet Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which charts the author’s social work, daddy issues, and addiction problems in 1980s Boston, Being Flynn largely focuses on Nick’s estranged father, Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), a typically delusional, curmudgeonly flake whose denial-laden pride is slowly chipped away as his failed-writer circumstances lead him to skid row. An apartment eviction begets sleeping in the cab that at some point paid the bills, and a car accident, in turn, begets sleeping on sidewalk vents. Soon enough, Jonathan is swallowing hard and tiptoeing into the local shelter, where Nick (Paul Dano) just happens to work. However transparent, the irrepressible grandeur of Jonathan’s pathetically warped ego adds a sting of classic tragedy to his systematic downfall. Still, the tackling of the comfort-to-curbside theme is admittedly limited in sincerity and success, and devoting a paragraph to it is being quite kind to a movie that’s mostly generic and spiritless, another bullshit exercise in sucky boho indiedom.
One really can’t blame much of the film’s defects on the source material, as Nick and Jonathan’s real-life reconnection is nicely serendipitous, and the troubled dad truly did inspire the troubled son to aim higher and break the cycle of familial failure (whether or not one must become one’s father is the story’s basic through line). But writer-director Paul Weitz makes a bland mockery of just about every tool at his disposal, including Lili Taylor (the actual Nick Flynn’s wife), a habitually de-glammed actress typecast as a recovering cokehead. There’s no way the Flynns’ actual lives were so monotonously Sundance-y, with perfectly disheveled exposed-brick apartments, encounters with a mother (Julianne Moore) who’s indistinguishable from every other self-destructive single lady, a moment with Jonathan standing naked in the tub while spouting crotchety slurs about the neighbors, and the kind of rote paternal struggles that yielded Audience Awards in 1998. Even the pivotal shelter setting, when introduced, gets broken down into tired high school-ish cliques, with voiceover acquainting you with the ex-cons, drug addicts, and requisite do-gooders, like Denise (Olivia Thirlby), the pixie-haired renaissance chick who turns Nick on to shelter work.
The film’s conceit is that it offers narrations from both Nick and Jonathan, who self-reflexively opine about which is the better chronicler (“Don’t worry—you’re back in the hands of a master storyteller,” Jonathan grunts when the ball’s in his court again). This is about as effective as the handling of Nick’s addiction, which, despite Dano’s finest efforts (he’s characteristically on-point with every nuance and fed-up blowout), is even flatter than the soup-kitchen politics. In truth, the arc of overcoming the deadly grip of crack has been far better portrayed and developed in one-hour procedurals. Weitz translates Flynn’s faith-in-prose perspective with stronger results, such as a scene that sees Nick use his shelter journal as a circumstantial creative outlet, but then, he’s also prone to squeezing the entire craft of writing beneath his art-house-bargain-brand umbrella.
The most egregious flaw, by far, is De Niro’s performance. In Being Flynn, a film that some are touting as the icon’s return to deeply-felt form, he plays nothing more than a poorly fleshed-out, redemption-bound quack, who must ultimately endear himself to the audience despite minority hatred, sad-sack tunnel vision, and rampant selfishness. There are certainly flashes of pity for the man, who thankfully never undergoes a full and tidy Hollywood turnaround, but De Niro’s contributions to the character are merely a lot of frowns and a lot of volume, as if screaming as loud as one can constitutes an attention-worthy turn. What we’re promised is Serious De Niro, but all we get is another riff on the same shtick he’s been peddling since 2000 in the infernal Focker series. Little Fockers, in fact, was also helmed by Weitz, which should be all the red flag you need in terms of whether or not Being Flynn is worth it. If De Niro knew what was good for him, he’d certainly distance himself from this director and find a new path. Because at this point, the man who’s supposedly one of our greatest living actors is in dire need of career surgery, to the extent that all that screaming sounds a bit like a cry for help.