Review: De Niro and Dano in ‘Being Flynn’ paint a turbulent picture of a creative life

You know, you should never count the Weitz brothers out.

Both Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz made their names early.  “American Pie” put Paul on the map as a director, and they seemed to indicate that their careers were headed to a more personal and heartfelt place with 2002’s lovely “About A Boy,” which they co-directed.  Since then, they’ve both had some pretty big creative misfires, although no one could accuse them of being anything less than ambitious.  I may not like “The Golden Compass” as a movie, but I can see what drew Chris Weitz to it, and I respect the effort.  For Paul, the nadir of his film work so far would have to be the one-two punch of “Cirque du Freak” and “Little Fockers,” both movies that felt corporate and calculated.

Last year, Chris made the piercing “A Better Life,” featuring an amazing performance by Demian Bichir, and it felt to me like he had roared back to life as a filmmaker, besting whatever his own high-water mark was so far.  While I don’t think Paul’s new film, “Being Flynn,” reaches the same beautiful heights as “A Better Life,” it strikes me as authentically observed and deeply felt, and a huge step in the right direction for him as a filmmaker.

Based on Nick Flynn’s memoir, “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City,” the film traces a few years in the life of Nick, played by Paul Dano.  He’s a young writer who is adrift, trying to figure out his own voice, left damaged by the suicide of his mother and a lifelong abandonment by his father.  Played by Julianne Moore and Robert De Niro, Jody and Jonathan Flynn would be a challenge for any kid, but Nick is an excellent empath, wide open, and he absorbs his mother’s pain for most of his childhood, even as he finds himself wounded by the absence of his father.

The film follows the unusual tactic of having two narrators, constantly wrestling the film away from each other.  Because like Nick, Jonathan Flynn is a writer.  The problem is that Jonathan spent so much of his life running cons and in and out of jail and dealing with his own failures that his “writing” is, like much of what he says, something he uses to pump himself up.  By the time we meet Jonathan, he is well on his way to mental illness and homelessness, and that’s how he ends up re-entering the life of his son, because by that point, Nick has taken a job at a NYC homeless shelter.

The film avoids a lot of what I was afraid of when I first read the premise.  First, Jonathan Flynn is a hard man to love, and the film really doesn’t smooth out those rough edges.  He’s a racist and a homophobe and he’s a user, constantly figuring out what he can get from people.  He doesn’t appear to have any remorse at all for the way he left Nick and his mother, and he accepts no responsibility for anyone else’s lot in life.  He is constantly talking about his “masterpiece” and spouting his theories, and De Niro never makes him seem cuddly.  He never defangs this bastard, and the film is stronger for it.

Paul Dano does nice work here, subtly charting Nick’s flirtation with addiction, his self-doubt, his pain that threatens to define him.  He and Denise (Olivia Thirlby) flirt with something like a relationship, but he’s not ready, and she’s not willing to watch him throw his potential away.  It’s the sort of material that could easily be a hamfest in the hands of the wrong actor, especially knowing they’ve got to play off De Niro for much of the film’s running time, but Dano underplays things nicely, only occasionally cranking it all the way up, and the result feels more honest.

There are some structural issues with the film, and some of the big moments fall flat for me, but there are enough grace notes and odd choices and interesting attempts at something real that in the end, I would give “Being Flynn” a recommend.  It is navel-gazing, no doubt about it, and there’s something about the modern memoir industry that seems to reward screw-ups simply for being screwed up, but “Being Flynn” makes some potent observations on what it is we get from our parents, what it is we define for ourselves, and how hard it can be to keep those things separate.

“Being Flynn” opens in theaters on Friday.