A young writer, coping with addiction, finally meets the drunk, delusional father he never knew at the homeless shelter where the writer works. That’s the improbable truth at the core of Being Flynn, the uneven but undeniably powerful film from writer and director Paul Weitz.
Based on Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (great title), Being Flynn is a film that aches with sadness. Paul Dano excels as Nick, the budding writer, poet and playwright who drifts through his twenties until he takes a job at the New York homeless shelter that employs his girlfriend, Denise (Olivia Thirlby). Seeing his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), lining up for the shelter is a jolt. Jonathan is a writer too, claiming to be on par with J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. He talks obsessively of his magnum opus, Memoirs of a Moron, and unearths long-buried memories of Nick’s childhood and his troubled mother, Jody (the ever-superb Julianne Moore).
The film is a duel between father and son, with Nick providing narration for each in the hope of understanding his old man. From L.I.E. to Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, Dano has shown himself to be an actor of subtle brilliance. His quiet intensity is a wrenching contrast to De Niro’s unhinged flamboyance. Weitz directed De Niro in Little Fockers, a strained farce that barely tapped the actor’s skills. Here, you can feel De Niro’s full engagement in a character that echoes his roles in Taxi Driver and Awakenings. It’s a great wreck of a performance that feels bruisingly true. At its best, when it keeps sentimentality at bay, so does Being Flynn.