No matter what mathematicians might tell you, one overblown performance and a minimally-played one do not average together into two pieces of good acting. For proof, check out “Being Flynn,” which stars Robert De Niro and Paul Dano as father-and-son would-be authors whose paths intersect in a New York City homeless shelter.
De Niro screams and grimaces and plays to the back balcony, while Dano, looking more like a drowned rat than ever, stammers and blinks and tries desperately to survive on the trace amounts of oxygen that De Niro leaves behind.
It’s like each actor is moving further and further towards his own extreme in the hopes of pulling the other one alongside him — but the result is a tug-of-war in which both sides lose.
Since the movie is about men with pretensions of literary greatness, we’re treated to dueling narration from the get-go. Jonathan Flynn (De Niro) fancies himself one of the foremost American novelists, even though the most he has to show for his work is a mildly encouraging letter from Viking Press. Having long abandoned his son Nick (Dano), he drives a cab, swills screwdrivers, and rants about gays and people of color.
(And yes, you heard right — Jonathan is a taxi driver. And if that alone isn’t reason enough not to cast DeNiro and his specific brand of cultural baggage, what is?)
Jonathan gets kicked out of his apartment for attacking the noisy musicians who live downstairs, then lives in his cab until he drunkenly wrecks it and loses his license. Meanwhile, Nick breaks up with his girlfriend (his first response to this is to self-indulgently drive his own head into a mirror), moves into an abandoned strip club, and is convinced by new flame Denise (Olivia Thirlby) to take a job at the homeless shelter where she works.
A few weeks into the gig, the shelter gets a new client: Jonathan. And over the course of a harshly cold New York winter, both father and son will grapple with their substance-abuse problems, their inability to maintain relationships, and Nick’s anger at Jonathan over the suicide of Nick’s mother Jody (Julianne Moore).
Adapting Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” writer-director Paul Weitz can’t make the solipsistic central protagonists interesting, even though his best films (“About a Boy,” “In Good Company”) deal with surrogate father-son relationships. Still, he nails everything else, from the day-to-day mechanics of the homeless shelter to the supporting performances.
De Niro and Dano do some of their very worst work here, but at least Thirlby and Moore and the shelter employees (including Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Eddie Rouse, Victor Rasuk and Michael Genadry) get to carve out little corners of humanity while the stars of the film are respectively bellowing and muttering. There’s also a lovely score from Badly Drawn Boy, Weitz’s “About a Boy” collaborator.
A popular internet phenomenon is “Garfield Without Garfield,” wherein someone takes the annoying newspaper comic strip and erases the lasagna-eating cat and all of his dialogue balloons, leaving his hapless owner alone and spouting non sequiturs like a pencil-drawn Samuel Beckett character.
If some digital trickster could turn this movie into “Being Flynn Without the Flynns,” we might actually have something here.