WIth a richly textured mid-90s New York City setting, and ace performances from Paul Dano and Robert De Niro as they create a supremely complicated father-son relationship, Being Flynn is a low-key drama full of pleasant surprises. Complete with the Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack, director Paul Weitz is back in his About A Boy wheelhouse, a relief after a decade marked by middling comedies like American Dreamz and outright disasters like Little Fockers. Handling Nick Flynn's memoir with an understated confidence, Weitz allows for real life's quirks while telling a smoothly paced, engaging story that nicely blends its literary roots with a cinematic style.
The nature of the memoir means the story belongs to Nick, but both father and son begin the film with voiceover narration, Nick establishing himself as your typical aimless mid-20s wanderer, and Jonathan as the kind of self-aggrandizing raconteur who introduces himself with the line "My name is Jonathan Flynn, and everything I write is a masterpiece." it doesn't take long to figure out that's not true-- Jonathan gets evicted from his apartment and manages to contact his son for the first time in 18 years to help him move out, a mystifying and unsatisfying encounter for Nick, who sees his own writing aspirations uncomfortably reflected by his delusional father. By sheer coincidence, a few months later Nick is working at a homeless shelter only be reunited with his father, who has lost his taxi license and apartment and, pride still somehow intact, finds himself with nowhere else to go.
There's another, far more sentimental version of this story that Being Flynn deftly avoids at every turn. Nick doesn't work at the shelter for altruistic reasons, but because he wants to get with a girl (Olivia Thirlby) who works there, and even while watching his father struggle with alcoholism he succumbs to his own addictions as well. And though Jonathan is homophobic, racist and a consistent problem at the shelter, DeNiro plays him as the kind of irrepressible troublemaker who, in another life, would have no trouble holding his own with Philip Roth or Norman Mailer. With the likes of Lil Taylor and Wes Studi working there, and actual homeless men filling in as extras, the shelter makes for a compelling backdrop as Nick and Jonathan inch toward a relationship, making this more than a story about a father and son reconciliation, but about this entire underseen, forgotten corner of life in a large city.
With the voiceover narration that occasionally dips into carefully wrought metaphors, and both Jonathan and Nick's stories that hinge on books and writing, Being Flynn doesn't hide its literary roots, and with Weitz's straightforward directing style it might not seem cinematic enough to merit the adaptation. But it's a pleasure to live inside this world, complicated and rough as it can be, and Dano and DeNiro bring so much to both their individual performances and their relationship together that Nick and Jonathan feel alive on the screen, making their story one worth investing in. It's unspeakably great to see DeNiro actually acting onscreen again, and even Dano seems to find himself a bit here, growing up into a capable man but never letting Nick's neuroses and failings devolve into self-pity. Julianne Moore, seen in flashbacks as Nick's mom, adds her own skill while still leaving the bulk of the film to the boys. Earnest and striving but with a light touch, Being Flynn has an impact far greater than you might expect for a film that feels so easy while you watch it.
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