Being Flynn Review: De Niro’s Finally Acting Again

Posted by on July 14, 2012 at 4:32 pm

In Being Flynn, Robert De Niro takes a break from a decade of giving bland performances in shitty movies (Stardust excepted) to give a great performance in an above average movie. One could argue that the rather simple story of damaged young man reuniting with his delusional, near-sociopathic father shouldn’t merit resurfacing of De Niro’s dormant talent, but I don’t care. As a longtime fan of De Niro, particularly the work he did from 1973-1997, I’m just happy to see him actually acting again instead of collecting massive paychecks in exchange for sleepwalking through bad movies.

Being Flynn, based off of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, follows a tortured young man (Paul Dano) as he takes a job working at a homeless shelter in Boston and reunites with his estranged, alcoholic father (De Niro). Both men wish to be artists, but they’ve been beaten down by life. De Niro’s Jonathan Flynn arrogantly states “America has produced only three classic writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me,” but he’s, of course, never published a book. Nick Flynn, inspired from childhood by his father’s claims to greatness, also strives to be a writer, but instead finds himself working as a social worker. At its core, Being Flynn is really a coming of age story about a young man learning to step out of his father’s shadow while also coming to accept his father for who he really is.

Through two decades of obsessively watching movies, I’ve discovered that there are essentially two main types of independent films. There are the quirky and overly clever comedies that detail the lives of people with first world problems, perfectly represented by Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and then there are relentlessly bleak, pitch black movies that deal with people suffering from seriously deep seated emotional problems, drug addictions, and monumental reversals in fortune. Being Flynn is one of the latter. A third of the way into the film, De Niro’s alcoholic cab driver is evicted from his apartment, loses his car, and ends up living on the streets in a state of delirium. The sudden reemergence of his pathetic father sends Dano into a drug relapse. The movie is punctuated by brief moments of light heartedness, but the subject matter of Being Flynn is decidedly heavy.

I’ve grown increasingly numb to both categories of indie film, but the performances of Dano and De Niro elevate this movie. In Being Flynn, De Niro has been handed the best role of his career since Casino, and furthermore, he seems aware of it. As the alcoholic, ex-con, and legend-in-his-own-mind father of Dano, De Niro proves that he can still emote instead of phone in dead-eyed line readings. With almost comically exaggerated mannerisms and an affected accent, De Niro’s older Flynn alternates between loudly proclaiming to the world that he’s one of literature’s greatest treasures and ranting about the vileness of homosexuals and blacks. As De Niro spirals deeper into alcohol induced senility, he becomes increasingly unpredictable.

Truth be told, the role of Jonathan Flynn could have easily been ruined by a less talented actor. Given the gamut of emotions the character has to run, the character could have easily become hammy and overdone, but De Niro accomplishes a difficult tight-rope walk, finding a way to underplay every scene while still indulging in the man’s eccentricities. With this role, De Niro reminds us of why he was considered by many to be the best actor of his generation for three decades.

Paul Dano meanwhile grounds the film with a subtle performance. The role of the self destructive and drug addicted younger Flynn could have likewise been ruined through overacting, but Dano dials his performance down and allows De Niro to steal the movie. The two actors compliment each other perfectly.

If the movie has one major problem, is that it seems to lack any sort of structure. The film drifts from one scene to another and then somewhat abruptly reaches something approaching a happy ending. I haven’t read the source material, but Being Flynn meanders around exactly like memoirs tend to do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the problems of this film are the direct result of attempting to translate the source material into the more rigid construct of a movie.

Still, the refreshingly unadorned direction of Paul Weitz combined with brilliant performances from De Niro and Dano transform what could have been a run-of-the-mill indie film into an engaging character study. And for any longtime De Niro fans, Being Flynn is worth seeing simply because it reminds us what a great actor De Niro still is.

7/10 FleshEatingZipper

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