Just when I thought that Bob De Niro was wasting his great talent on too many silly movies, along comes a smashing performance in a very fine film, Being Flynn. The overpowering De Niro of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull will scare you with his portrait of a delusional drunkard. His Jonathan Flynn is demented, angry, and even funny. He hasn’t seen his son in 18 years, and the wife whom he abandoned hates him. Paul Dano is wonderful as the complicated younger Flynn, a twentysomething aspiring poet and fiction writer who is forced to take crappy jobs. His girlfriend, Olivia Thirlby, works in a Boston shelter for the homeless. She’s a lovely actress who holds her own with De Niro and Dano.
One of the lowly jobs Flynn junior must take is an aide position at his girlfriend’s shelter. Paul Weitz, the director, has an uncanny feel for the aching, shattered men that we meet there. If they are actors, they are great. If they are really homeless, they’re still great. You may see where this is going: one night, one of the shuffling walk-in turns out to be the elder Flynn. There is no catharsis at first; the two hate each other. Julianne Moore enters this ugly family portrait as the wife and mother Flynn left for good. She turns in another perfect performance as an alcoholic who still manages to work two jobs and take care of her adoring son.
There’s a lot of heavy plot here, but for the most part it’s so powerful it works. At one point De Niro gets a job driving a cab, and for a moment we see a connected thread between Taxi Driver and taxi drunkard. On a drunken rampage he crashes the cab, loses his license, and is kicked out of the shelter. What follows is a painful and painstaking account of his descent into the freezing snowy streets of Boston. There are some truly great scenes, but the gifted writer/director Weitz could have used a stronger editor. He apparently wrote 30 drafts, only to end up with his original script.
My only other problem with this well-executed film is its forced happy ending. The story skips a few years, and we see that the elder Flynn has somehow obtained and kept a cute little apartment. His attire has gone from indigent to nearly Ivy League. Young Flynn now has a wife and child, and father and son sweetly hug each other at the end. It felt to me like some focus group told the filmmakers too late in the game that the movie would be better with a happy ending.
But please go see Being Flynn. De Niro is magnificent and I think he’ll get nominated for an Oscar. Perhaps ditto for young Dano and Ms. Thirlby. I hope this picture gets the attention it deserves. It’s a movie that has really powerful feelings in it, something you don’t get much of these days.