"Being Flynn" contains the best performance by Robert De Niro in many years.
I know, not saying all that much. Still, playing a self-delusional train wreck of a man, driving a yellow cab, De Niro's character Jonathan Flynn puts us in mind of his great work as Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."
The characters haven't much more in common, and this movie isn't as visceral. But it's pretty darned honest at portraying the ultimate dysfunctional father-son relationship, and it rarely goes where you think it might.
Based on a 2005 memoir by Nick Flynn, "Another Bull(expletive) Night in Suck City" (I like that title better), this mostly sad movie is written and directed by Paul Weitz, who showed promise with "About a Boy" and who also directed De Niro in the more forgettable Fockers trilogy.
Both Jonathan and his son, Nick (Paul Dano), deliver voice-over narration, and though the story seems at first to be about the father, it soon becomes clear that "Being Flynn" will be about how the son deals with his feelings for this impossible man.
The first voice we hear is Jonathan's, telling us he's one of only three great American writers, the others being Twain and Salinger. He's always talking about the millions offered for his magnum opus, which no one has ever seen. He's also alcoholic, racist, homophobic and generally combative with the world.
Nick never knew him growing up, except for letters from prison after a check forging scheme. The letters plant the idea Nick should be a writer too.
Nick's depressed mom (Julianne Moore) works two jobs to raise him, providing a steady stream of father figures who don't last, but also a loving home. You can't help wishing Moore had been given more screen time to flesh out this character.
You might think Jonathan has sunk pretty low at the start, but he has a long way to fall.
Father and son get to know each other after Nick's girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby, a scene stealer) suggests Nick take a job at the homeless shelter where she works, while he figures out his writing career. Jonathan checks into the shelter for the night. And then a lot of troublesome nights.
Thus begin some serious problems for Nick, leading to crack cocaine and turmoil with the girlfriend. As if Jonathan weren't enough of a burden, both of them have buried secrets that come to light.
Grim becomes more grim, and the mean streets of Boston are cold indeed in winter.
Dano, who often plays the passive resistant in movies like "Little Miss Sunshine," keeps it mostly internal again here, and it's an interesting contrast to De Niro's more emotive performance. Both are admirable in what they make you think and feel as they lurch toward rock bottom.
Remember what I said about the story not going where you think it will. Nor will it go where you possibly want it to.
Instead, it goes where the characters take it, feeling honest nearly every step of the way.
If "Being Flynn" had been released a bit later in the year, with a publicity campaign, you might be hearing Oscar rumblings. As it is, we'll probably have to settle for admiring De Niro, and renewing hope for what he might yet have to give movie history.
Contact the writer: