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Robert De Niro and writer-director Paul Weitz find the most congenial material either of them has had in quite some time in Being Flynn, a fractious father-son drama with a soul-warming gentle core. What sounds predictable and vaguely unappealing in summary—a young aspiring writer struggles with addiction while trying to deal with his delusional, homeless dad—credibly engages in elemental human ways thanks to insightful writing and sensitive performances all around. A blah title is the first obstacle Focus will have to overcome to attract a discerning public to this unemphatic but distinctively flavored literary-oriented piece.
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When it sinks in after a while that this film actually provides a meaty, serious role for De Niro rather than just a cameo or another occasion for buffoonery or showy grandstanding, you wrack your brain trying to remember the last time the actor had a really good lead part in a quality movie. The answer is, probably 17 years ago, in 1995, when both Casino and Heat came out. Shocking, but true. It’s also the case that De Niro, playing crazy old Jonathan Flynn, who claims that he, Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger are the only great American writers, does cut the ham a bit thick, but it’s an honest, vibrant performance after an overextended sojourn through paycheck territory.
Happily, he’s got a splendid counterbalance in Paul Dano, who centers Weitz’s smartly judged adaptation of Nick Flynn‘s stylistically experimental 2004 memoir about trying to cope with his own difficult young life. It’s the story of two writers, the elder a ranting alcoholic con-man who’s spent time in prison and claims that “everything I write is a masterpiece,” the younger a mild-mannered lad whose mother has committed suicide and is very uncertain how to relate to man who abruptly imposes himself on him after an absence of 18 years.
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Toggling back and forth between the two men for a while, with Nick’s boyhood neatly suggested by a series of his mother’s boyfriends playing catch with him, the story gathers itself when long-haired bearded Jonathan checks himself into the homeless shelter where Nick works. The latter edges into a healthy relationship with fellow caseworker Denise (Olivia Thirlby) but comes under bad influences at the loft-cum-party space where he lives with some good-times low-lifes, getting too far into booze, coke and crack. Nick’s descent is trenchantly intercut with that of his forlorn mother (Julianne Moore) and also parallels behavior by his father so appalling that he’s banned from the shelter for two months.
As things unfold, it becomes clear what a delicate balancing act Weitz is attempting, with general success, to pull off. Virtually all the important aspects of the story are familiar movie staples—addiction, fractured family bonds, urban blight, homelessness, struggling to pull your life together—but the film refreshingly approaches none of these in the mode of “problem” or “issue”-related dramas; they more properly represent the fabric of the lives of the characters and the interest lies in how they individually deal with them—Jonathan by living his lunacy to the fullest, the mother by giving into her demons and Nick by learning to manage them.
It’s unclear how much time is passing at different points, but there is a nice, unstressed sense of phases—of Nick’s need for altered states and Denise’s tolerance for this, of the mother’ despair, of the aging Jonathan’s ability to survive on the street once he’s tossed out, of Nick’s vacillating feeling about how deeply to engage his father. For quite some time, the son harbors legitimate doubts about whether his father has ever written a word in his life, and certainly about the existence of his alleged masterpiece, Memoirs of a Moron. When questions about it come to a head, the issue is handled gracefully and in a manner entirely believable.
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The sources of the film’s gratifying equilibrium would seem to lie equally with the carefully balanced structure of Weitz’s script and Dano’s restrained but open-hearted performance. In his short life, Nick has experienced more than anyone’s fair share of deprivation, sorrow and angst. It’s not that he handles it all with equanimity, exactly, or a maturity beyond his years. But the way he accepts, processes and adapts to events in a kind of cool slow-motion gives what would ordinarily be predictable high-emotion scenes a very unexpected rhythm and temperature. De Niro supplies the volatility associated with the Elia Kazan school of acting, but Dano refrains from responding in kind, offering an unusual sort of serene transparency that is not only dramatically effective but quietly suggests the nature of a thoughtful formative writer digesting life experience for future use.
Moore is warm and vivid in her brief scenes as the one source of love Nick has known, Thirlby is fine as a young woman with understandable reasons not to get too close to him and Lili Taylor and Wes Studi are among the many with strictly functional roles as homeless shelter workers.
Badly Drawn Boy, aka singer-songwriter Damon Gough, provided the effective musical backdrop for About a Boy, which Weitz co-directed with his brother Chris in 2002, and does the same here with an engagingly offbeat selection of songs. Declan Quinn’s sharp cinematography and Sarah Knowles’ attentive production design, linked to New York-area locations (Flynn’s memoir is set in Boston), are major pluses.
Opens: March 2 (Focus Features)
Production: Depth of Field, Corduroy Films, Tribeca
Cast: Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby, Lili Taylor, Wes Studi, Julianne Moore
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriter: Paul Weitz, based on the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Producers: Paul Weitz, Andrew Miano, Michael Costigan
Executive producers: Jane Rosenthal, Meghan Lyvers, Kerry Kohansky, Caroline Baron, Nick Flynn
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Sarah Knowles
Costume designer: Aude Bronson-Howard
Editor: Joan Sobel
Music: Badly Drawn Boy
R rating, 102 minutes
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