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Movie Review

Being Flynn

De Niro makes the most of ‘Being Flynn’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 9, 2012
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Any new movie that sticks Robert De Niro behind the wheel of a taxi is just asking for trouble. In “Being Flynn,’’ the 68-year-old actor plays Jonathan Flynn, Manhattan cabbie and a legend in his own mind. He thinks he’s one of the three greatest American writers of all time (Twain and Salinger being the other two), but we and anyone who gets in his cab can see that he’s a manic-depressive loose cannon. Jonathan is what Travis Bickle might have become if he hadn’t gone off the reservation back in ’76 but instead had spent decades stewing in his own bile.

Jonathan has a son he hasn’t seen in years: Nick (Paul Dano), a tremulous would-be writer still reeling from the recent death of his mother (Julianne Moore). “Being Flynn’’ is based on the real Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, “Another [expletive] Night in Suck City,’’ which detailed his experiences volunteering at Boston’s Pine Street Inn at the same time his father landed at that storied homeless shelter. The movie relocates the action to New York - can you see De Niro driving a taxi anywhere else? - but that isn’t the reason it plays out at a fatal remove.

Directed by Paul Weitz, who has bootstrapped his way up from the “American Pie’’ comedies to “About a Boy’’ and, um, “Little Fockers,’’ “Being Flynn’’ is earnest to a fault, and it offers the now-rare sight of De Niro giving an actual performance. Jonathan is mouthy, aggressive, paranoid, and he becomes more so as he slides further between the cracks of society. The actor doesn’t pretty up his character in the least, and you’re thankful for the honesty - for the angry funk that comes streaming off Jonathan in waves.

It takes a strong leading man and a strong director to counterbalance a performance like this, and “Being Flynn’’ has neither. In supporting parts, as in “Little Miss Sunshine’’ and “There Will Be Blood,’’ Dano can seem wonderfully woeful, but he may be too reactive for lead roles. This is another one of those coming-of-age stories in which the hero doesn’t snap into focus until the final scenes, and by then the audience may have given up. Dano’s Nick spirals into drink and drugs, mistreats his occasional girlfriend (a very good Olivia Thirlby), and agonizes over helping a father who won’t ask for help. He’s finding himself, but he never convinces us why we should stick around until he does.

The movie’s much better at sketching in the bustling life of a shelter - the many mundane tasks involved in keeping the destitute alive for one more night. Native American actor Wes Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans’’) gets some nice, terse moments as the shelter director - a former tenant - and there are too-brief glimpses of Lili Taylor (Nick Flynn’s real-life wife), Victor Rasuk, and Eddie Rouse as fellow volunteers. “Being Flynn’’ is frank about the grinding dehumanization of being homeless and about the psychological toll of caring for the fallen. But it has trouble carrying that urgency over to its hero’s personal struggle.

The British pop singer known as Badly Drawn Boy chips in a ruminative score similar to the one he composed for Weitz’s “About a Boy.’’ Mostly, though, “Being Flynn’’ is memorable for the sight of a once-great actor rousing himself to a performance the movie itself isn’t prepared to handle.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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BEING FLYNN Directed by: Paul Weitz

Written by: Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Flynn

Starring: Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, Olivia Thirlby, Julianne Moore, Wes Studi

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square

Running time: 102 minutes

Rated: R (language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, brief nudity; De Niro finally being De Niro)

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