If I could figure out the math of these things, I'd give an extra half-star to Robert De Niro, on the occasion of his not sleep-walking through a movie for the first time in recent memory.
In Being Flynn, De Niro plays Jonathan Flynn, a failed writer whose delusions of grandeur remain intact, even as his failures knock him down the food chain - from cabbie living in a slum to unemployed homeless guy crashing in a shelter where his estranged son works.
It's a complex emotional soup, taken from a 2004 book by poet Nick Flynn, and one that demands much from all involved. It happens that, recent efforts notwithstanding, De Niro is the actor with the best chops for it. And though there's plenty of loud, angry drama in Being Flynn, he laudably resists the urge to chew up and swallow the entire thing whole.
A grim, grudgingly-redemptive tale of like-father-like-son, Being Flynn concentrates on the character arc of Nick, a self-styled writer like his father, who struggles with the identity crisis that comes with growing up fatherless (and having a mother driven suicidal by the pressures of single parenthood).
We meet Nick (Paul Dano) as he's being tossed out of his apartment by his flight attendant girlfriend for sleeping with someone else while she was away. Conveniently, Nick quickly lines up other accommodations, a shared abandoned warehouse with a black drug dealer and a fussy white gay guy as roommates. Both are suspicious of any emotional baggage that might lead to non-rent-paying additions to their space.
Which is where the vagaries of the plot bring Jonathan and Nick together again. Tossed out of his own apartment, Jonathan calls his son after 18 years to help him move his stuff to a storage locker. Having Nick's roommates along gives Jonathan a chance to display his aggressive racism and homophobia, making his entrance into his son's life even less welcome.
Flash ahead and Nick is still a writer-on-hold, working at a shelter, in a relationship with Denise (Olivia Thirlby) the beautiful young woman who got him the job. But when Jonathan hits the de-lousing shower, Nick gets a pretty unsubtly-telegraphed look at his own future, and begins to lose it himself -- to drugs, booze and self-doubt.
Nuances aside, you know that De Niro also welcomed the role of Jonathan because it gives him a chance to lose it and scream stuff like, "Father killer!" and "You are me!"
In fact, this message couldn't be pounded any harder into the viewer's head from beginning to end. Director Paul Weitz doesn't seem to trust the story to tell itself. His flashbacks (with Julianne Moore as the put-upon mom) become redundant after a while, and even gimmicky (e.g. a game-of-catch, in which the "dad" at the other end changes with each throw).
Dano, meanwhile, gives a weirdly inscrutable performance in the key role of Nick. His mood is so hidden that other characters have to say things like, "You look really messed up" to clue you into what's going on in his world.
In the end, Being Flynn is a melancholy exercise, a not particularly well-written take on the toll of being a great writer.