Being Flynn: Robert De Niro Has Not Given Up After All

This adaptation of Nick Flynn's acclaimed memoir Another Bull__ Night in Suck City holds on to its poetry, although the profanity-laced title had to go.

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On several occasions in Being Flynn, a bleak but moving study of familial and societal estrangement, Paul Dano, one of America’s best but most offbeat young actors, lets his tiny Raphaelite mouth hang open in surprise. The first is when his character, Nick Flynn, gets a call from his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro), who he hasn’t seen in 18 years, demanding some help moving. Jonathan, an alcoholic who thinks he’s a writer on par with Mark Twain, has been evicted. Not long after, Jonathan arrives at the homeless shelter where Nick works, asking for a room. Dano’s mouth falls open again.

My own mouth may have hung open a few times during writer-director Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Flynn’s acclaimed 2004 memoir, Another Bull__ Night in Suck City. I’m so used to being not just over Robert De Niro, with his string of lazy, hacky performances (Everybody’s FineLimitlessNew Year’s Eve), but actively annoyed by him (have you met the Focker franchise?) that being touched by his portrayal of Jonathan was a shock. Jonathan is an incongruous mix of the courtly and the despicable. He’s racist, a homophobe and at the shelter he’s what Nick calls, “my drunken Jack-in-the-box,” prone to outbursts and screeds that horrify even Nick’s most hardened co-workers. At one point, he even stands in front of a mirror and has a delusional conversation with himself (other shades of Taxi Driver; Jonathan drives a cab, briefly). De Niro could have hammed it up and riffed on Robin Williams performance from The Fisher King. Based on his acting choices of the last decade or so, that is just what I’d have predicted. Instead he mostly plays it straight — not a great performance but a surprisingly good one.

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Movies tend to visit homeless shelters for a spot of life lesson-tude, but Being Flynn really inhabits this sizeable one. (The book takes place in Boston, but the movie could be set in any urban center.) There are a couple of familiar faces at the shelter, including Lili Taylor (Nick Flynn’s wife in real life) as a reformed crack addict turned do-gooder and Olivia Thirlby as Nick’s solemnly beautiful girlfriend. But it’s the craggy, worn faces on both his co-workers and the shelter’s “guests” that sell you on the place’s authenticity. It’s a sad place, the last stop before the morgue for many of the guests, as one character says bluntly, but it runs like a clock.

Weitz’s screenplay features alternating voiceovers (like About a Boy, the movie Weitz made with his brother Chris) between father and son. Jonathan’s is full of piss, vinegar and grandiose visions of the advances he’ll be getting from publishers for his great novel, while Nick’s is quieter, more matter-of-a-fact. When Nick introduces Taylor’s character sunnily going about her business at the shelter, he says that in later years she’ll end up with a shotgun across her knees, using crack again. “It’s hard to stay changed,” he adds, a punch that lands right in the gut. I’ve only read pieces of Flynn’s memoir, but some of the more poetic lines in the screenplay appear to come straight from it. Jonathan settles onto a steam grate for a night and Nick’s voice explains it represents both sanctuary and trap since getting off it in the night, dampened from the warm steam, can lead to hypothermia. “The blower is a room of heat with no walls,” Dano’s Nick says, just as Nick Flynn wrote it.

Dano’s natural remove, which already served him well in movies like There Will be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine, is exactly right for Nick. He’s not the cute boy you root for. He’s a drifter and a drug user, who dreams of being a writer himself but his ambitions are constricted by Jonathan, a dreadful role model who could easily be a Joe Gould, a writer who talks a blue streak about writing but produces nothing worth publishing. Cinematically, Dano brings just the right edge of dazed uncertainty to the part — even knowing this movie was based on a successful memoir I wasn’t sure onscreen Nick would ever get his own act together.

(READ: TIME’S Richard Corliss reviews There Will Be Blood)

It’s no wonder the movie is no walk in the park, even with a pretty soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy (again, like About a Boy). It never feels inspirational — it’s too gritty and dark — and there isn’t a single easy solution in sight for either Nick or Jonathan. At times the only bright spot, other than Thirlby’s smile, are the glimpses in flashback of the relationship between young Nick (Liam Broggy) and his wry, loving mother Jody (Julianne Moore). Instead of a father, young Nick plays catch with a succession of Jody’s boyfriends — Weitz cuts in a different man, catching each of his throws in one of the film’s most crushingly effective scenes — and makes do with his mother who comes home between jobs to feed him dinner.  Julianne Moore can do much with little (she conveys all of Jody’s resentment and resignation with a single dismissive “ha”) but Jody is underwritten to the point that a key decision she makes remains a nagging mystery.

Once upon a time Paul Weitz and his brother Chris made a crass piece of business called American Pie. They segued out of trash together with 2002’s About a Boy and separately back into it with, respectively, Little Fockers and New Moon. Both were obviously big money projects. But last year, Chris directed Demian Bichir to his unexpected (but deserved) Oscar nomination in A Better Life, an earnest look at immigration centered on a Latino gardener raising a son alone, with big ambitions to improve his lot. And now along comes Being Flynn, a tale of failed fatherhood intertwined with issues of addiction and homelessness. Maybe this is their Blue Period, in which they sing dirges in the dark.

READ: TIME’S Q&A with Chris Weitz about Twilight: New Moon

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