Robert De Niro occasionally reminds us he’s Robert De Niro in between paycheck roles.
Yes, watching the Oscar winner mug his way through “Little Fockers” hurts the soul, but the restorative power of parts like Jonathan Flynn offer a soothing balm.
In “Being Flynn,” out on Blu-ray and DVD July 10, De Niro plays a quasi-homeless man who thinks he’s the greatest American writer since J.D. Salinger. Who cares if he drives a cab and has yet to be published?
Based on the memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” “Being Flynn” traffics in father-son dynamics that barely deserve such a label. Jonathan is a horrible father in every way that matters, and he hasn’t seen his son in years.
Paul Dano plays Nick Flynn, a lost soul who finds a modicum of meaning in his life by working at a homeless shelter. He flirts with a damaged but resilient fellow employee (Olivia Thirlby, “Juno”) and bonds with the down and out guests.
His wavering sense of stability ebbs when his long-lost father (De Niro) appears at the shelter. Jonathan insists he’s wrapping up the next Great American Novel and finds the homeless shelter beneath his station. Nick simply wants to find something in his father worth loving, and the older man makes that wish all but impossible.
De Niro makes the role look easy, carrying himself with a swagger that comes from a lifetime of pretend. He’s dignified at all costs – whether he’s escorting a beautiful woman into a cab or unwrapping a used bar of soap to wash himself in a rest stop bathroom. The character’s level of delusion is monumental and unflinching.
And when he spits out book titles like “Memoirs of a Moron” and tells people he’s a well-received raconteur, the actor almost convinces us Jonathan is really the great writer he pretends to be.
Dano appears miscast as the film opens, his doughy face all wrong for a guy who could simultaneously bed and cheat on a comely flight attendant. But Nick requires a complicated inner life, and the young actor delivers in a way that doesn’t feel like extra weight.
it’s a shame we don’t see more of Julianne Moore as Nick’s mother in the film’s occasional flashbacks. That part of the Flynn saga demands to be fleshed out, particularly given the arc of the woman’s character and its impact on her young son.
Writer/director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) doesn’t go for the soft sell here. The ties between the Flynns aren’t meant for gauzy, manufactured resolutions, and Weitz’s ability to tease meaning from quieter moments makes “Being Flynn” a genuine sleeper.
The sole extra on the Blu-ray edition, “The Heart of ‘Being Flynn,'” lets the filmmakers and cast ruminate on translating the book to the big screen. It’s modest in length and filled with the usual Hollywood back-slapping, but it also gives us some neat information from behind the scenes – like the fact that Dano was living a mere three blocks from the real Nick Flynn when the project went forward.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies