Nick Flynn was already a great writer when he penned “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” but in his 20s, during the period described in Flynn’s memoir, his fate was still uncertain. He was living just this side of homeless, crippled by fears he might turn out like his father, a tragic old drunk convinced he was America’s next Salinger. Writer-director Paul Weitz captures a fraction of that poetry in “Being Flynn,” a moving, if somewhat maudlin adaptation that takes interesting stylistic chances suggested by the virtuosity of its source. Focus can expect only muted interest, despite Robert De Niro’s involvement.
For an actor as respected as De Niro, box office hasn’t been kind lately. “Being Flynn” might not change things, but it offers De Niro his first really juicy dramatic part in years. It’s not hard to picture Weitz passing Flynn’s memoir to the star on the set of “Little Fockers,” begging him to play another taxi driver, this one running on empty, in a true story so touchingly composed, you wish its bigscreen translation were as stirring.
De Niro dignifies the role of Jonathan Flynn, a half-delusional ex-con so deep in his own lies, he’s lost track of reality. A couple decades earlier, he walked out on his wife (Julianne Moore) and son Nick. Now, he drives a cab, but fancies himself an important novelist, telling any who will listen about the multimillion dollar advance publishers are offering for his unfinished magnum opus.
Now an adult, Nick (Paul Dano) also aspires to write, but he’s too insecure to share his angst-filled scribbling with anyone, considering the effect his prose had on the last person to read it — a reveal handled with care late in the film, lest the already heavy material lapse into schmaltz. In the meantime, searching for direction in his own life, Nick accepts the advice of reluctant-to-commit g.f. Denise (Olivia Thirlby, angelic) and takes a job at the same Gotham homeless shelter where she works. Every day brings humbling surprises, none more unexpected than discovering his own father waiting in line for a bed.
Nick’s situation with his roommates (Chris Chalk, Thomas Middleditch) is too delicate to suggest bringing dad back to their sketchy living quarters, and besides, Nick’s paternal grievances outweigh whatever sympathy one might expect in this situation. It scares Nick to recognize aspects of himself in Jonathan, and working through those issues is key to establishing his own identity as a writer and as a human being.
In “L.I.E.,” the film that launched his career, Dano played a budding poet who escapes tragedy through personal expression. Raw as that performance was, in the intervening years, the actor has developed an emotionally withholding stiffness. In “Being Flynn,” that approach can sometimes be maddening as we look for the actor to reveal what the character is feeling, but are met only by the coy enigma of Dano’s Mona Lisa smile.
De Niro conveys a great sense of such turmoil. Though less reliant on his star persona than in much of the thesp’s recent work, the role clearly serves as a counterpoint to the existential rage of “Taxi Driver.” Here, when De Niro looks in the mirror, instead of being excited by the cocky punk staring back at him, he’s alarmed to discover an unfamiliar old man.
The film surrounds its leads with a cast whose faces capture the ragtag dignity Flynn described in his book — no overacting required, no emotional panhandling allowed. Weitz attempts something unique with his screenplay, dividing the narration between Nick’s hesitant soul-searching and the brash, bigoted voice of his father — with the latter track really written by Nick as well, as the writer forces himself to empathize.
Some scenes are so poignant you could cry, as when Jonathan feigns a deposit to take temporary solace in a heated ATM lobby (cribbed from Flynn’s opening chapter). Others suggest creative solutions taken by Weitz to deliver key passages in the book; for example, the film summarizes Nick’s complicated childhood via a game of catch, panning back and forth between a boyhood Nick (Liam Broggy) and an alternating series of father figures.
Sensitive widescreen portrait is possibly one of the last films to be shot on Kodak stock. Pic gets much of its humanity from an unconventional, string-driven score by Badly Drawn Boy.