Being Flynn - Paul Dano and Robert De Niro
Being Flynn - Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is reunited with longtime deadbeat dad Jonathan (Robert De Niro) at the homeless shelter where Nick works © 2011 Focus Features LLC

This downbeat drama about an underachieving eventual addict and his delusional homeless father is based on actual events, but Hollywood’s habit of stretching the truth has a way of abusing the term “dramatic license.” Even if the bones of the real story remain intact, much of Being Flynn feels inappropriately artificial and “color enhanced” instead of believably gritty and emotionally honest.

The source material is writer Nick Flynn’s PEN Award-winning memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. But the movie’s credits note that in addition to characters being “composited or invented,” a number of incidents have been “fictionalized.” Sticklers for accuracy also will note that one real-life character deleted entirely from the film version is an older brother, making Nick an only child here.

Director Paul Weitz (Little Fockers, American Pie) wrote the screenplay adaptation, which plays like a second-rate Cameron Crowe sequel to star Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver. Horrified yet? Imagine a grizzled and gray-haired Travis Bickle, still writing angry diatribes in his disjointed diary like “I’m gonna transform this cesspool of a world with the word!” Only now he goes by the name Jonathan Flynn, overdoing the twinkly curmudgeon act so shamelessly he seems to be impersonating Robin Williams. Also, the soundtrack is full of obtrusive songs that are supposed to be sensitive by the one-man band Badly Drawn Boy, who also scored Weitz’s 2002 About a Boy.

Being Flynn - Paul Dano and Robert De Niro
Nick's dead mother Jody Flynn (Julianne Moore) is seen in flashbacks © 2011 Focus Features LLC

Viewpoints and voiceover narration alternate between Jonathan and Nick, the son he abandoned nearly two decades earlier. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine) plays Nick with a pasty-faced world-weariness that’s only slightly more animated than catatonia. He’s apparently a chick magnet, though, because his beautiful flight attendant girlfriend kicks him out of their apartment after finding evidence he’s been cheating. Nick later hooks up with a preposterously model-gorgeous homeless-shelter staffer named Denise (Olivia Thirlby), who wears fingerless gloves and has a great haircut.

Nick moves into a former strip club with roommates his unabashedly intolerant father describes as “a homosexual and a black pothead.” The loft-style living quarters are as artfully cluttered as a stage set, and equally as believable. Meanwhile, Jonathan has lost his hack license after falling asleep behind the wheel of the cab in which he’s been residing. He calls Nick to help move his stuff into storage.

Nick plays it heartless at first, refusing to let Jonathan stay with him even though it’s obvious Jonathan is lying about having friends who will be happy to put him up. But life is cold on the streets of the nameless city (Boston in the book). Father and son are equally embarrassed when coincidence brings Jonathan to seek a bed at the homeless shelter where he doesn’t know Nick is working.

The rest of the movie involves Nick trying to deal with his belligerent, alcoholic and endlessly self-amused father. Jonathan arrogantly claims to be writing a masterpiece worth millions, noting that the three classic authors America has produced are “Mark Twain, JD Salinger and me,” but Nick doubts the manuscript even exists.

Flashbacks to Nick’s mother Jody (the always appealing Julianne Moore) reveal a family tragedy that helps explain Nick’s psychological state, which eventually deteriorates into drug abuse.

Being Flynn‘s attempt to alleviate all of that pervasive gloom by making Jonathan a non-stop smartass is a near-fatal flaw for a character, and a movie, that should have been more convincing.

[Rating: 2 stars]

Being Flynn is in theatres from Friday March 2, 2012

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.