Here's how the decade since About a Boy has panned out for director Paul Weitz: the like-minded gentle dramedy of In Good Company, the more farcical American Dreamz, the marginally inspired Cirque du Freak and the strictly business Little Fockers. As one might imagine, it's nice to see the brother of Chris (A Better Life, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) return to more humane territory, complete with Fockers star/Boy producer Robert De Niro in a leading role. Like that wholly winning Nick Hornby adaptation, Being Flynn is based on another book involving a suicidal mom and an absent dad, employs dual narration from its two protagonists and is backed by a wistful soundtrack of original Badly Drawn Boy songs, and while it isn't quite as charming, Flynn navigates its own emotional terrain to mostly satisfying effect.
Better than he's been in ages, De Niro stars as Jonathan Flynn, a self-proclaimed Great Author when he's not a menace of a neighbor and a lush behind the wheel of a taxi. For decades now he has clung to a nugget of a compliment buried within one of many rejection letters, and he used those delusions of grandeur to encourage his son, Nick, to also become a writer in one of many letters he writes from prison. Mother Jody (a solid Julianne Moore) always warned him away from such a hopeless way of life, but now that she's gone and he's grown, Nick (Paul Dano) is similarly a drifter and a dreamer. Out of the hope of keeping the interest of a girl (Olivia Thirlby), he decides to join her in helping out at a homeless shelter, and who comes walking in the door and back into Nick's life but a newly evicted, ornery-as-ever Jonathan.
The central dilemma of both Nick Flynn's real-life memoir and Weitz's film is whether a son raised by a single mother would still want his father around if he turned out to be an irrational, bigoted ex-con. Would you need him or help him? Refuse him or become him? Is his book really a so-called masterpiece? Having two characters in one place contend with 20 years of resentment is a potent recipe for overripe melodrama, but Weitz and his two leads strike a healthy balance between concern, frustration and outright hysterics.
The convenience and seeming contrivance – after all these years – of having Nick work where Jonathan lives is excused by its basis in real life (though the film doesn't go out of its way to evoke Boston in the '80s, opting instead for a vague sense of place and time) and each man's clearly independent path to the Harper Street Inn. The younger Flynn tries halfheartedly to subscribe to his father's suggestion that "we are put on this earth to help other people," while the older Flynn clearly can't stand them. To Weitz and De Niro's collective credit, Jonathan's rough edges aren't sanded down: He's a racist, a homophobe and an egomaniac, and these unexpected, unyielding characteristics are what credibly fuel Nick's response to their reunion.
Although he's operating in a familiar, mopey mode, Dano holds his own opposite De Niro, except when Nick has to endure a dramatically perfunctory addiction phase, or on the occasion where shouting matches between the two men skew toward the theatrical.
It may be a bit on-the-nose when either explicates that life for a writer is simply "gathering material," but the phrasing goes a long way toward explaining how a man like Jonathan can remain so willfully obtuse as to the severity of his impoverished circumstances and why someone like Nick needs to express his long-bottled angst. With a chilly color palette and a suitably melancholy score, Being Flynn does a decent job of finding its own poetry in the way that its characters write, and rewrite and revise their own lives.
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