02/29/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Movie Review: Being Flynn

It's unfortunate but understandable that they had to change the name of Nick Flynn's memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, to the more TV-ready title Being Flynn. If only they could have made it into an interesting tale, instead of a movie about miserable people making each other miserable.

Adapted and directed by Paul Weitz, Being Flynn ostensibly is about Nick (Paul Dano), a would-be writer dealing with alcohol and commitment issues. So he decides he wants to put his life to better use and goes to work at a homeless shelter. And one night, in walks his father, looking for a bed.

His father Jonathan (Robert De Niro) is a larger-then-life character: a self-styled genius writer-without-portfolio, now currently out of work and out of a place to live. But he's also the ghost of the past that Nick wants to escape.

A self-proclaimed great writer who has done time for check fraud and the like, Jonathan has been the presence whose absence has all but defined Nick's life. Raised by his deserted mother (Julianne Moore), Nick devoured the stories Jonathan told in long, hand-written accounts of his life sent as letters from a distant father. But as Nick eventually discovered, even when he was present, Jonathan was absent certain basic habits of polite society -- like not stealing from your host.

Jonathan missed every significant moment in Nick's life; now he's putting his life in Nick's hands. But he's, at minimum, a pain in the ass: self-involved, opportunistic, grasping, untrustworthy, alcoholic. And so Nick battles his own warring instincts about his father, even while trying to deal with him on a professional level.

Part of him wants to extend that hand that his father himself never offered, in the hope that even, at the end of life, some change is possible. The other part wants to turn away, in anger at a life of being ignored or worse. And he can't seem to find a middle ground, because Jonathan is too in-your-face to let him.

There's an interesting subtext that no one ever talks about here and that's that Jonathan has begun to wander into his own little world of dementia. The fact that he was actively dislikable even before the dementia started doesn't help his case.

But Dano isn't up to the struggle of wrestling a scene away from De Niro. His weak-chinned brand of self-protection is about ineffectual anger that has no hope of being assuaged. He's a mumbler who will never be believable as a take-charge type, like De Niro.

As a result, their scenes are exercises in passive-aggression, without much real interaction. It's as if De Niro is in his own little scene, while Dano tries to ignore him and move forward alone.

The title, of course, refers to both father and son -- each has his burden with bearing that particular name. And Nick worries that he will turn into his father, a dismal prospect.

In Being Flynn, however, neither character gives us much reason to care who they are -- or ever will be.

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