There's little doubt that writer-director Paul Weitz's intentions are both earnest and artistic. After a trio of father-son dramas — About a Boy, In Good Company and now Being Flynn — he clearly has an attraction to the damaged intricacies of family dynamics. His latest film is an adaptation of Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir, a project he has nurtured along for years. And while there are things to admire in this conflict between a bombastic and selfish father and his disaffected and passive son, the film's tone is too unstable and its narrative too misshapen and unfocused to draw us in. Weitz never fully commits to one character to tell his story, and his lead actors deliver less than persuasive performances.
Inexplicably moved from the book's Boston setting to New York City, Weitz presents Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) as the directionless son of a single, hardworking mom (Julianne Moore) and absentee dad, John (Robert De Niro), a volatile blowhard with delusions of authorial grandeur. Still reeling from the suicide of his mother, Nick moves into an abandoned strip club with two accepting strangers and lands a job at Harbor House, a homeless shelter. Unexpectedly, he finds both stability and inspiration serving the homeless, connecting with the staff, exploring his writing, and establishing a relationship with his co-worker, Denise (Olivia Thirlby).
Meanwhile, Nick's father John, who likes to compare his writing to Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, is on a downward spiral. He's evicted from his apartment after attacking a neighbor, loses his job as a cabbie after a drunken crash, and washes up at ... you guessed it ... Harbor House. How Nick confronts (or avoids) the disruptive presence of his racist, alcoholic, probably bipolar dad after an 18-year absence becomes the backbone of the film.
As Nick's father-son struggle unhinges his already threadbare life, Weitz's script goes to great lengths to give him a sense of depth and origin, mostly using emotionally affecting flashbacks. Unfortunately, he neglects to explore Nick's more defining adult moments and emotions. Instead, the character is left to react (or not react) to his father with muted self-destruction. John, on the other hand, is depicted as insufferably one-note, a raving and raging ball of paternal neglect and endless self-aggrandizement. Subtle it's not.
To his credit, De Niro actually gives a committed performance for a change. But that doesn't mean what it once did. The formerly commanding actor mostly shouts and eye-rolls his way through his erratically written character, winking just enough so that John Flynn's unpleasant, paranoid, and self-obsessed nature is undercut by a level of charm. It's a dishonest portrait punctuated with actorly grace notes, and, much like the film, it never fully convinces.
Dano, on the other hand, is so understated he virtually disappears from the frame. Head down, sadly passive, and with ever-watery eyes, he gives an awkwardly interior performance that's too easily buried beneath De Niro's ferocious scenery-chewing diatribes.
The supporting cast, which includes Wes Studi, Lili Taylor (wife of real-life Nick Flynn), Liam Broggy (playing Nick as a child) and William Sadler is excellent but underutilized. Thirlby is contained and elegant, while Moore movingly conveys a woman struggling to do the best she can with what little she's got, but neither are given enough time to resonate beyond their scenes.
There are moments here that certainly work, in particular, its unsentimental approach to homelessness. Weitz captures with unflinching sensitivity its degrading impact on the humanity of those abandoned by society, and the emotional toll it takes on those who try to help. But as a portrait of characters desperately hoping to rewrite their flawed life stories, his movie lacks the urgency and insight to make us care.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.