Grim Like Flynn

De Niro holds his own in this father-son tale, but his screen spawn sours the story

Paul Weitz is a writer-director (About a Boy) with talent and imagination. I can’t imagine what lured him to Being Flynn, a depressing and downbeat rendering of a book called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The offbeat, commercially challenging 2004 memoir by writer Nick Flynn explores his fractured relationship with his creepy father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), a failed writer himself, but mostly a Bowery bum and bona fide loser. Too small and dark to appeal to a large audience, it’s not a movie to cherish.

Nick is played in the film by overrated, pickle-faced Paul Dano, who put the sour in the stagnant, sourpuss opus There Will Be Blood. He hardly knew his father, a nut case who abandoned his loving, hardscrabble mother (Julianne Moore) early to pursue his dream of living up to his self-anointed label of “living genius” (“Everything I write is a masterpiece,” he babbles, after everything he writes is rejected by everybody in publishing). Great legacy.

After Dad deserted, he ended up in prison for cashing forged checks while Mom committed suicide. Released with his great novel under his arm, Flynn then became a cab driver, alcoholic and charter member of the unemployed homeless, living in a condemned building above a strip joint that was closed down by the FBI until he lost his license for falling asleep at the wheel and hitting a pedestrian.

Except for an occasional phony letter professing true love, Nick hasn’t seen him for 19 years. He calls him “a nonperson, a face without a body.” “What I am,” says Flynn, “is an artist.” There’s no evidence anywhere, even though De Niro wears rotten teeth and picks lice off his body with convincing Actors Studio naturalism.

Imagine the horror when a grown son, unfocused and without enough ambition to get a job outside of cleaning toilets in a homeless shelter, comes face to face with his missing father as a semipermanent “guest,” seeking a bug-free bed. It’s the stuff of stained, Gorky-influenced fiction, but not exactly what I’d call pleasant, memorable cinema.

I saw Being Flynn at 10 a.m. with no time for breakfast. I don’t recommend making the same mistake. How about watching a filthy bum, covered with scabs, mashing lice between his fingers? De Niro works hard to welcome redemption with the levity of sarcastic wit without groveling for sympathy, but there is just so much you can do with the role of a racist, homophobe, lawless reprobate and pathological liar. For the past few years, he’s snored his way through his own movies like a Valium addict.

This time he gives it all he’s got, which is a lot, but not enough to make you care.

I didn’t care what happened to the son, either. This is entirely the fault of the numbing Dano, a surly actor with the personality of roadkill. The son is a worker, the father a resident, in a cesspool of misfortune, but what makes the old man a survivor is his sense of humor. He even regards a row of fellow tramps tied to their shoelaces to prevent their shoes from being stolen as “gathering material” for his next novel. Instead of a loafer and a bounder knocking on doors for a place to spend the night, Jonathan refers to himself as a “sought-after house guest.” When he turns from a hapless hobo into a howling madman wrapped in a sheet, he makes us care about his downfall.

The movie is also supposed make us care about how the son escapes his dead-end life and puts to good use what he learned from the father without repeating his mistakes. We know the real Nick Flynn wrote the book Paul Weitz spent seven years adapting for the screen, and I guess that’s the point of this whole father-son confessional. But De Niro is the only thing worth the effort. He wipes the floor with his costar so many times that I felt the movie would have been better balanced with a different cast. I found Dano so weak, lachrymose and emotionally blunted that I lost interest fast.

Being Flynn is the kind of Dante nightmare actors find fun to play, but it’s hell for an audience to watch.

Being Flynn (R) ★★★☆☆

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