Over the past couple decades we’ve gotten so used to half-assed, openly contemptuous performances from Robert De Niro, that after seeing Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn there might be an understandable tendency to overrate it—simply because Bobby looks like he’s finally trying again. As Jonanthan Flynn, a motor-mouthed alcoholic and unpublished novelist who ranks himself alongside J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain, he’s certainly a good deal more specific than the fockered phoned-in star turns De Niro has been cashing paychecks for lately.
He’s also a bore.
Being Flynn was adapted from Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, and if you want a key to how gummy and toothless this picture turns out to be, just check out that title change. Paul Dano co-stars as the younger Flynn, battling substance abuse and daddy issues while attempting to write the great American novel, or something. He’s one of those self-consciously “tortured” movie writers who is introduced hunched over a desk with whiskey in the middle of the afternoon, trying to be heroically angsty and banging his head against the bathroom mirror after cheating on his improbably hot girlfriend.
Paul Dano is a gifted re-actor and probably best at being chewed up and spit out by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood . But he’s a recessive presence, not the kind of personality you can build a movie around, so Being Flynn lurches about uncomfortably, searching for a protagonist in fits and starts. Dano’s Nick finds work at a homeless shelter that’s obviously modeled on Boston’s Pine Street Inn. He falls into the gig seemingly by accident, on the whims of yet another fleeting piece of tail (Olivia Thirlby) that Nick picks up and can’t quite bring himself to throw away afterward.
Meanwhile, his estranged father, Jonathan, is boozing it up, driving a cab and providing a dueling narration. Let’s get this out of the way straight off—putting De Niro behind the wheel of a taxi and allowing him to delusionally rant is a terrible idea for any filmmaker. Especially one who just made Little Fockers. Jonathan carries around a club with a couple of rusty nails in it, muttering racist and homophobic slurs that feel a lot less dangerous than they probably should.
It takes an altogether brutal amount of screen time for Jonathan to bottom out and end up as “a guest” at the shelter where his son works, and even then Being Flynn spins its wheels trying to keep these two at a distance from one another because there won’t be any movie left once they reconcile.
De Niro throws drunken fits and slurs obscenities while Dano recedes further into the background, like he keeps forgetting that he’s supposed to be the star of his own story. Spiraling into one of the duller drug addictions yet captured on film, Dano’s constantly crowded out of the frame by De Niro’s yakkety blowhard. (This is the first time I’ve ever seen a low-energy cokehead.) These two jostle each other around the narrative for so long and with no clear purpose, we’re never quite sure whose story Weitz wants to be telling.
Matters aren’t helped by flashbacks to a mentally unstable Mom, played by Julianne Moore with such quicksilver shading and precision that you’ll wish she had a picture of her own. Weitz, who has helmed mostly garbage save for the wonderful Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy , shows a surprising gift with actresses, pulling a gorgeous bit role from ’90’s indie queen Lili Taylor as one of Dano’s doomed co-workers. Unfortunately he’s also got a case of the “cutes,” even offering asides where characters break and speak directly to the camera, annihilating the allegedly grimy reality of their surroundings.
I’m still not sure what Being Flynn is supposed to be about, save for a collection of scenes that happened once, sometime. Transplanting Flynn’s memoir from Boston to a vague, unnamed non-specific urban space saps all the rough and tumble Townie attitude that zinged a title like Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. I am told this picture was shot in New York City, but it might as well be a Burbank television soundstage. All semblances of grit feel prefabricated and phony, with the 1990s setting sketched in so hazily, you’d never know when it took place if you weren’t wondering why nobody has a cell phone.
Same goes for De Niro’s performance. While it’s awfully tempting to applaud him for actually giving a fuck and showing up for work for a change, the character is a one-note drone. Jonathan tiresomely rambles on and on, and even though Weitz keeps cuing us to remember Taxi Driver, all I could think of was Awakenings. There’s no electricity to his mania, just expert actorly marks and cues. Lump that in with Dano’s wet noodle supposedly holding the center, and Being Flynn just flounders.
Some thespians age beautifully, revealing in their autumn years a relaxed mastery of their craft. Robert De Niro should have been one of those actors. Instead he’s become bored and boring.