On paper, Being Flynn sounds dreadful, like David Duchovny’s House Of D, plus a few heavy-handed plot contrivances: Paul Dano stars as an aimless, addiction-prone young man who reunites with his long-estranged father (Robert De Niro) when the latter winds up homeless and starts turning up at the New York City shelter where Dano works. It sounds manufactured and over-the-top, but it’s based on a true story, as told in Nick Flynn’s caustic 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. More importantly, director Paul Weitz (About A Boy) handles it artfully and sometimes archly. Neither of his central characters is saintly or simple, and their relationship is appropriately bound up in resentment, obligation, and pride. And the film’s tricky style, which plays with time, voice, and expectations, goes a long way toward spinning intrigue out of a story that could have been cloying and flatly manipulative in other hands.
De Niro plays Flynn’s father Jonathan as a smugly delusional narcissist who opens the film by bragging to the audience that America has only produced three great writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and himself. “Everything I write is a masterpiece,” he exults, “and soon I will be known.” Meanwhile, his adult son Nick is also a would-be writer, but he’s living at the opposite end of the self-esteem spectrum, floundering in the shadow of his father’s long-ago abandonment and his mother’s death. When Nick gets hired on at the homeless shelter, it’s less out of a sense of altruism than because an attractive female acquaintance (Olivia Thirlby) suggested it, and he has nothing better to do. Briefly, the film seems to suggest that Jonathan is simply a character Nick is writing, an avatar through which he works out his own frustrations, but the reality is messier. Already weak-willed, sullen, and needy, Nick is infuriated when Jonathan turns up and increasingly needs Nick’s intervention. Bad enough that Nick is expected to be there for a man who was never there for him; Jonathan doesn’t even have the courtesy to understand or acknowledge his own weakness.
Dano has proved his talent in the past, but a long string of soft-and-stymied-victim roles (in the likes of There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, and The King) may be taking their toll; he’s the weak link in Being Flynn, failing to evoke much sympathy with his vacillation between bland, squishy affectlessness and petty rage. De Niro, on the other hand, is frequently riveting. Given the freedom to rant, ramble, and play self-satisfied raconteur, he engages with the role in a way he hasn’t in years, bringing a core of frightening dementia to his shabby character. But most of the credit for the film lies with Weitz, who plays comic games with the film’s structure and with the camera—for instance, observing De Niro raving to himself in the taxi he drives early in the film, then revealing the terrified people trapped in the back seat. Or displaying the passage of time and Nick’s desire for a father figure via a snappy montage of him playing catch with a series of his mother’s boyfriends. Weitz’s sense of play and the Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack each give Being Flynn an enjoyable lightness; meanwhile, the curdled, hidden rage lurking within both Flynns gives it an equally enjoyable edge. In spite of its basis in reality, the storyline feels like a film-world contrivance, but the complicated emotional palette is reality all the way.