If you're a fan of Nick Flynn's stunning 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, you're probably concerned about whether Being Flynn director Paul Weitz will do justice to Flynn's exploration of grief, homelessness, and father-son relationships on the streets of '80s-era Boston. Adaptations are always difficult to pull off, but this one had the extra baggage of being based on a lyrical book with chapter titles like "The Piss of God," and a tendency to jump back and forth through time as Flynn unpacks his life story.
And what a story it is: an absent, alcoholic, self-aggrandizing father, Jonathan, whom Nick hardly knows, arrives as a "guest" at the Pine Street Inn, the Boston homeless shelter where Nick works alongside outcasts barely holding it together themselves. The book's about the hardest kind of love — the love between failed parents and their adult children — and it explores its difficult themes with a haunting vision that doesn't stray into sentimentality.
And, against all odds, the movie does, too.
The film opts for a more linear structure (with some flashbacks), but that doesn't stop Weitz from editing scenes together thematically, in imitation of Another Night's style. Weitz's ear for this is pitch-perfect, particularly when it comes to the main tension of the story: is Flynn destined to turn out like his old man? Near the opening, we see them both — Jonathan (Robert De Niro) in the junk-filled apartment that he's about to be evicted from, and Nick (Paul Dano) in his soon-to-be-ex's apartment — each of them writing, day-drinking, and writing some more. In an instant what's at stake is conveyed: the two men are separated by age and not much more.
Dano's Nick is initially young and cocky, and the least-believable scenes depict him as a half-drunk ladies' man — smashing his head into a girl's bathroom mirror in shame, then hitting on Denise (the out-of-it Olivia Thirlby), the new girl he's into who gets him the job at the Inn, with a sleazy, self-obsessed smoothness that she seems too smart to fall for. Then again, all of his co-workers at Pine Street are half-cocked, and watching their relationships unfold — with each other and with the men in their charge — is darkly funny, touching stuff.
Interestingly, Nick's choice to work at the shelter catalyzes his departure from his father's path, but also reconnects them. And the movie flies once Jonathan shows up at Pine Street's door. Though Paul Dano does a fine job as Nick, and Julianne Moore turns in a strong performance as Nick's downward-spiraling-yet-loving mom, it's De Niro who hits it out of the park. His Jonathan is racist, selfish, narcissistic, and — somehow — incredibly sympathetic.
Jonathan, a failed writer, mixes prejudice and conceit with moments of vulnerability that are windows into his pride. When he arrives at Pine Street, he tells Nick that they should both, as writers, be gathering material at the shelter. "It's a great opportunity for me to see how the other half lives: the poor, the downtrodden," he says. The depth of his denial dumbfounds Nick — and the viewer — but as he falls deeper into drunken, hallucinatory despair, we see in De Niro's long looks in the mirror and slouching frame how aware he is of his own true colors. This may be his best performance in decades.