You’ve got some serious artistic hubris if you’re willing to stick Robert De Niro behind a yellow cab and reference one of his most iconic works, and Being Flynn cannot compare to Martin Scorsese’s sweaty, paranoid Taxi Driver. That was a work of pure daring, an evocation of numerous westerns gone to rot and sanity in the concrete badlands of New York City. Being Flynn, meanwhile, is a generic adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. One that is too safe, too clean, and too hurried to really grapple with and sell the material.
Being Flynn gives in to Hollywood redemption clichés, we know that Nick will overcome his sudden drug addiction to become a well-respected author, we know that Jonathan will eventually find stability, probably at the intervention of Nick, and things will be on their process of healing. What makes it all so frustrating is just how abrupt many of these darker twists are handled. Watching this, you’d be hard-pressed to see just how deep into addiction Nick has spiraled. We only know and get the sense because of Olivia Thirlby’s speaking it aloud. Being Flynn wants to present the warts of Flynn’s memoir, but it doesn’t want its movie star cast to have to get too ugly for their parts.
And what a cast it is! Paul Dano’s distant, soulful face is perfect for a role like this, and delivers a reliably solid performance, but the part never taps into his full talents. It’s as if everyone is too afraid to ask him to go the places and lengths he went to in There Will Be Blood once more. Julianne Moore, Thirlby, and Lili Taylor are all wasted, and they’re about it for female characters. Moore plays his mother, a thinly sketched part that makes you wonder why she signed on in the first place, but at least she gets some stuff to play unlike the others. Thirlby mainly functions as “the girlfriend,” and Taylor has a small part in the homeless shelter where much of the action takes place.
So, that leaves Being Flynn in the hands of De Niro, and he’s in fine form here. After years of wandering the proverbial woods, De Niro’s recently been picking and choosing projects that provide ample room for him to stretch, to underplay, or perform in a very specific manner. His alcoholic with a grandiose self-image and aggressive relationship with his son is such a role. Being Flynn emerges as something of a star vehicle in a roundabout way.
You’re lured in with the prospect of a serious dramatic adaptation of a great modern literary work, but you get bargain basement Sundance material that already felt creaky in 1998. But what did you expect when the material is being handled by Paul Weitz, he of Little Fockers fame. That tells you just about everything you need to know.