Far and away the best reason to catch Being Flynn is the thrilling return of Robert De Niro’s dark, sneering, semi-psychotic side. Lord, how we have missed it over all these years of lame and passable De Niro gigs. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and in fine, fleshy, scary form here. De Niro, as down-and-out-and-heading-downward New Yorker Jonathan Flynn, even plays a taxi driver in New York, a would-be writer whose interior monologues and ranting scribbling almost seem to directly channel Travis Bickle’s volatile, sour worldview. It’s as if this taxi driver saw Taxi Driver too many times.
Filmic buzz aside, a remarkable aspect of this story is its reality card. Being Flynn adapts playwright Nick Flynn’s memoir about his father, absent for much of his son’s life but suddenly appearing in his time of need as the troublesome old coot is being evicted. Their lives again intersect when his father, now homeless (“Sleeping al fresco,” he puts it) winds up in the shelter where his son works. Needless to say, father-and-son dynamics go gonzo.
As a film, director/screenwriter Paul Weitz’s puts forth a noble but not entirely cohesive or convincing piece of work. It touches on the literally daily lives of the homeless (especially relevant in the current dire economic atmosphere) and the critical subplot of Nick’s long-suffering mother (Julianne Moore, who apparently has no ability to be less than right-on in a performance), left to fend for herself after her “writer” husband went to prison and fled the family scene, in a way few films have. Scenes of Nick’s childhood through adolescence are scattered throughout the story, like little changes of emotional pain in the background of his consciousness.
Even for the film’s shortcomings, De Niro enlivens and steals every scene he’s in. Just when we’ve written Jonathan off as a monomaniacal, hopelessly caustic bag of bones, we can appreciate the stubborn self-esteem and steely will within: Called a “drowning man” by his son, he replies “I’m no drowning man. I’m a survivor. I’m an artist.” Those things, he is, by deed and pile of words.
So the failed Great American Novelist Jonathan Flynn has his brightest hour up on the big screen, like Jake (Raging Bull) LaMotta, played with great gusto and warts-and-all bravura by Robert De Niro. Not a bad fate, that.