Based on the 2004 memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by playwright and poet Nick Flynn, “Being Flynn” has been written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (2002’s “About a Boy,” 2004’s “In Good Company,” and 2006’s “American Dreamz”), who has made some fine films until his recent rough patch, his latest included. Though Flynn’s memoirs would seem to have a blunt, emotional power and edge just by the title, Weitz’s adaptation for the screen is just a dreary, self-important father-son drama that happens to get some sincere performances out of its actors. Being a Flynn just seems like the pits, what with the alcoholism, mental disease, drug addiction, and homelessness.
Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is an angry, delusional, and self-aggrandizing crank who can barely mask his insanity. He’s a writer at heart, thinking everything he writes is an unpublished masterpiece, but works as a taxi driver, pouring himself screwdrivers and drinking on the job. Once kicked out of his apartment for getting belligerent, Jonathan starts to live in his taxi and on the street. Estranged from his father for 18 years, Jonathan’s grown-up son Nick (Paul Dano) is also a writer, aimless, self-loathing, and recently dumped by his girlfriend for sleeping with another woman. Moving into a former strip club-turned-apartment with a black drug dealer and a gay man, Nick then receives a call from his father to help him move out, which takes the younger Flynn completely off guard. Coincidentally, Nick takes a job at a homeless shelter (just to do something with his life), while Jonathan becomes homeless himself.
Intriguingly told with dueling unreliable narrators, the story at the core of “Being Flynn” should pull us in closer. However, the novelistic gimmick with Jonathan and Nick’s voice-overs don’t help us get into their heads. As for the father-son relationship, it should be more compelling than it really is, but it’s hard to connect to either of them. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and both deserve a swift kick in the ass.
De Niro certainly seems more engaged here than he has been after giving phoned-in, caricaturized perfs in 2008’s “Righteous Kill,” 2010’s “Little Fockers,” and 2011’s “Killer Elite,” again tapping into his genuine skills as an actor. And it’s nice to see the actor taking on a much meatier role, especially one who works as a taxi driver (get it?!), but not even De Niro can make Jonathan Flynn appealing on screen. It’s an occasionally showy and completely committed performance that Weitz tries his best to control after he did anything but in “Little Fockers,” but the character is still a racist, homophobic bigot that’s hard to embrace.
As Nick, the gangly Dano looks like a drowned rat and gets to experience a typical writer downfall when he starts abusing blow. He’s an interesting actor that has a lot of passive reacting to do. A pixie-haired Olivia Thirlby puts in strong work as Nick’s co-worker/hookup partner Denise. She’s more than just “the girl,” bringing a cool levelheadedness and backstory to Denise. Also, Julianne Moore has great moments, shown in flashback as Nick’s hard-working mother Jody who commits suicide, but her underwritten character deserved more. The presence of Lili Taylor (who’s married to the real Nick Flynn) is always a sign of reliability, but she’s given three all-too-brief scenes as another co-worker at the shelter.
“Being Flynn” luckily doesn’t become a tidy redemption story. There’s no quick resolution for characters this self-involved and problematic, so on that level, Weitz succeeds. Cinematographer Declan Quinn (“Rachel Getting Married”) also brings a hazy visual mood to the film, along with indie-rock selections from Badly Drawn Boy, although New York City unconvincingly stands in for Boston. Getting us to care about the Flynns is an entirely different matter.
102 min., rated R.