At this point in his fabled career, Robert De Niro isn’t exactly in need of a comeback. He could easily keep taking paychecks for stuff like New Year’s Eve or Killer Elite and keep his legacy secure. But it’s heartening to see him tackle a demanding part once in a while, something in which the quicksilver actor of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver can stretch out and flex his chops, something a bit risky, a little dangerous, even a bit frightening. Something like the role of Jonathan Flynn in Paul Weitz’ radiant Being Flynn.
Jonathan is one of those urban types we can see warming his bones on the heating grating outside an office tower on a late-winter afternoon as all the cubicle workers are heading home, muttering poetry and urgent headlines to himself, avoiding eye contact, chanting the song of forgetfulness. When we meet Jonathan he’s driving a hack — shades of Travis Bickle! — but we already understand in the first few minutes that he’s just passing through on his way to the bottom. Jonathan is homeless the way a clam is stewed or a worn-out truck tire is left shredded on the freeway. He didn’t necessarily have to end up like this, except that in a way it fulfills his destiny.
We wouldn’t notice Jonathan at all if it weren’t for his son, Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), who introduces his dad while explaining himself to us in voiceover flashbacks. The two men have a steely but meandering relationship. After his disturbed mother (Julianne Moore, fleetingly) commits suicide and his father goes to prison for forging checks, young Nick is determined to shed his birthright and walk the straight and narrow. Years go by without family contact. Things didn’t work out. Nick ends up broke in a Boston homeless shelter, the Harbor Street Inn, as a staffer, not an inmate. It is there that Nick reunites with his father, a delusional, vodka-swilling street scuffler who gets combative when confronted by anything, even his own son.
There’s an acting duel. Dano stands toe-to-toe quite well with De Niro, trading blows, cool where the older man is hot, open and unguarded where the father is vengeful. Nick shares a squat in a vacated mafia strip club with a couple of sitcom-style roomies, but otherwise there’s very little standard-brand cuteness about him and his situation, not even from Wes Studi, cast here against type as a nice-guy caregiver. Nick has his eye on a shelter colleague named Denise (Olivia Thirlby), who likes him even though he smokes crack he gets from his roommate. We’re glad the producers decided on Thirlby despite the fact that she’s too glamorous for the setting. She brings another chord in the same dismal-yet-intimate key. Twenty years ago Denise would have been played by Lili Taylor, who here settles for a smaller role at the homeless shelter.
Screenwriter-director Weitz, adapting the book by the real-life Nick Flynn, splurges on romantic hobo despair. Above all, mad, frustrated, fierce Jonathan considers himself a great writer, just like the protagonist of Joe Gould’s Secret. Other sub-metropolitan escapades filter past: The Saint of Fort Washington, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the Bukowski epic Factotum (Taylor again), and perhaps a sliver of Dementia. One thing’s for certain, when you walk out of this movie you will notice homeless people more than you did before, no matter how burned out you are on the subject.
But it’s De Niro and Dano who glue the project together. Jonathan is the bravest and strongest character De Niro has played since his role as an out-of-the-loop dad in Everybody’s Fine. Very few actors can disappear into a part the way De Niro can — it’s gratifying to know he hasn’t lost his skill. Probably never will. And Dano, one of America’s best portrayers of compromised young men, stays with him every step of the way. Never underestimate the dramatic power of father-son bonding. So what if Weitz had a hand in About a Boy and Little Fockers? With Being Flynn, the porch light is on and all is forgiven.