Paul Dano portrays Nick Flynn, left, and Robert De Niro portrays Jonathan… (David Lee / Focus Features )
It's not easy "Being Flynn." Not for Jonathan Flynn, the absentee alcoholic father played by Robert De Niro, nor the restless twentysomething son Nick, played by Paul Dano, the estranged pair at the heart of this darkly tangled family drama where resolution is hard to come by and satisfaction — for them or us — is not a guarantee.
Both Flynns fancy themselves writers, De Niro's Jonathan forever pontificating about the masterpiece that's almost finished; Dano's Nick not sure his scribbled observations have any merit. Regardless, it makes for dialogue of an elevated nature when, 18 years after Jonathan dropped out of Nick's life, he drops back in, leaving Nick to figure out whether having a father in the picture is better or worse than anything he'd imagined.
"Being Flynn" is based on author-poet Nick Flynn's searing memoir, "Another ... Night in ... City." Its theme of fraught times between fathers and sons is very much in the wheelhouse of Paul Weitz, who co-directed the bittersweet 2002 "About a Boy" with brother Chris ("A Better Life"). After his last project, the broad comedic family nonsense of 2010's "Little Fockers," Paul Weitz has dialed things down considerably for "Being Flynn," writing and directing with an earnest sensitivity that at times suits, at times undermines, the complexities of the story at hand.
Set in Boston, it begins with Nick haphazardly trying to start his life. Sharing converted warehouse space with a couple of guys and getting a job in a local homeless shelter, he experiences the city at street level, dire and desperate. Nick's childhood is stitched in with flashbacks — the latchkey kid, the struggling single mom (Julianne Moore) and the string of boyfriends who passed for father figures. By now, he's accepted the insecurity and insight that grew out of it. What he's still struggling with is his mother's recent death.
Jonathan, on the other hand, is preening and overconfident. He begins to emerge in the letters he's written to Nick over the years, filled with ramblings about life and his mastery of it. In reality, he's a cabby, a narcissist and a drinker, which combine to create a string of misfortunes that eventually land him in Nick's homeless shelter. The bulk of the film follows Nick as he figures out what, exactly, he owes his father and whether he will follow the same downward spiral, with his own drug abuse problems surfacing along the way.
Helping to set the general vibe of Nick's world is the noir-ish color palette used by cinematographer Declan Quinn ("Leaving Las Vegas"), with the indie-rock reflections of Badly Drawn Boy, also featured in "About a Boy," echoing the general sense of the film's moody blues.
There are other relationships in Nick's life, with Olivia Thirlby as on-and-off friend and lover Denise. But Jonathan's presence overshadows it all and threatens to overwhelm the film. Sometimes, De Niro nails the self-involvement of a man descending deeper into an alcoholic haze, but at other times his narcissistic rants turn into caricaturist extremes.
Dano, all lanky lassitude, at times struggles in the face of that gale force wind. When he doesn't, Nick begins to take shape and you see the mix of vulnerability and steel that have made the actor such a winning presence in films as different as "There Will Be Blood" and "Little Miss Sunshine."
But for all its good intentions and talented performers and filmmakers, "Being Flynn" leaves you feeling as if everyone is trying a little too hard. Sometimes, less really is more.