Seriously, what the hell happened to Robert De Niro? Remember when he was the male counterpart to Meryl Streep—Greatest Living American Actor, incapable of giving a bad performance, a reliable indicator that if he were in a movie, the movie itself might not be great, but at least you’d see something interesting?
Being Flynn is only the latest reminder that Robert De Niro, Greatest Living American Actor, has now settled for self-parody. He plays Jonathan Flynn, a cabbie and self-proclaimed writing genius who has never actually published—or, for that matter, completed—anything. Paul Dano plays Nick, Jonathan’s son who has not seen the father who abandoned the family for many years—until the old man shows up needing help after getting kicked out of his apartment, and soon becomes a regular fixture at the homeless shelter where Nick works.
Director Paul Weitz—who shepherded De Niro’s paycheck performance in Little Fockers—has a rough time guiding Nick Flynn’s memoir through its potential for overwrought melodrama. He tries out a dual-narration structure that should have made it easier to get a handle on Jonathan’s mental illness, but instead steers focus away from Nick’s attempt to make peace with his troubled childhood. The grittiness feels false, something layered on a story Weitz always wants to remind us will ultimately be a feel-good tale.
But most depressing of all, there’s De Niro—and it somehow makes it even worse that he’s playing a troubled taxi driver. We get far too much of De Niro and his bellowing worst; while Dano feels fairly at ease in his unshaped confusion, De Niro simply feels like he’s capital-A Acting. The few honest, emotionally potent moments have nothing to do with the possible rapprochement between Jonathan and Nick, because their scenes do little more than remind you of a time when watching Robert De Niro act was a privilege, and not a chore.
Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby