Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn is a tonally muddled and confused little movie, but ultimately an interesting one. It wants to be a dark and morally ambiguous slice of urban misery with a redemptive core, yet it never quite achieves that somewhat counterintuitive mash up. However, there are enough interesting ideas and a handful of solid performances that make it a hard movie to dislike. I mean, how bad could any movie that puts Robert DeNiro back behind the wheel of a cab accompanied by voiceover possibly be? Well, considering that it comes from the man who just directed DeNiro in Little Fockers, I guess it could pretty bad. Thankfully Weitz almost makes up for that atrocity by actually getting DeNiro to try a little bit as an actor for the first time in far too long.
Bobby D. stars as Jonathan Flynn, who opens the movie by getting into his cab with a bottle of liquor to warm his soul while explaining to the audience in voiceover that he’s a genius author. By his estimation he’s one of America’s greatest behind only Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger. Of course, he’s never been published and as far as we can tell no one has even read his supposed masterpiece that seems to exist only in his self-aggrandizing delusions.
He isn’t technically the main character. That would be his son Nick (Paul Dano), a writer in his 20s who’s already gone through the tortured artist trifecta of growing up with an absentee father, having his mother (Julianne Moore) commit suicide, and developing a healthy collection of addictions. He starts working at a homeless shelter to cleanse his soul and impress a pretty girl (Olivia Thirlby). He’s convinced that one day he will meet his father beyond the constant stream of letters. Jonathan does once his life finally bottoms out and he moves into that same shelter.
The concept is filled with opportunities for overwrought melodrama, but thankfully Weitz doesn’t indulge too much. Nick’s character may go through a redemptive arc that can feel a little pat despite a grounding performance from Paul Dano, but what elevates Being Flynn above the made-for-TV emotional traps is DeNiro’s Jonathan. There’s relatively little attempt to soften or sentimentalize the character. He remains aloof, aggressive, and delusional throughout, never imparting any impossible magic hobo wisdom or discovering how to be a parent late in life. Nope, he’s just a cantankerous ass too intelligently cynical for his own good, and DeNiro commits to the role. It’s easily the best work the actor has done in years.
The reason Jonathan is so darkly believable is that he comes from the real Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which as you may have gathered from the title can be a little harsh. The material is well served by the film, even if Weitz does try to soften things ever so slightly. While Jonathan might be presented as a damaged man throughout, Nick’s character does go through the standard Hollywood redemption arc. He’s able to straighten everything out a little too quickly and cleanly. Paul Dano (who is maturing into quite an impressive young talent through movies like The King and There Will Be Blood) fares best in the down period where he’s able to mope around and find new and exciting means of self-destruction. Once he starts thinking clearly, the role, the performance, and the movie all become less interesting. It’s as if Weitz couldn’t decide to be cynical or sincere with the story and he awkwardly attempts both.
Thankfully the misconceived moments of Being Flynn are mostly the exception and not the norm. Overall, the movie is surprisingly dark and ambiguous. It’s at least a story about flesh and blood people rather than movie archetypes and the unpredictable messiness of life spills in enough to make the often contrived narrative beats feel compelling. It’s a film worth experiencing for DeNiro’s performance and character alone. Had the rest of the movie lived up to the character, there would probably be talks of a DeNiro comeback and whispers of possible awards glory. That’s not going to happen for a project as small and inconsistent as Being Flynn, but at least the film suggests for the first time in quite a while that DeNiro might not be done the whole acting thing just yet.