De Niro Returns to Taxis and Good Form in ‘Being Flynn’
Simon Marcus Gower
Put Robert De Niro behind the wheel of a taxi and people will inevitably think of his role in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film “Taxi Driver.” Director Paul Weitz surely had this in mind when he worked with De Niro on the film “Being Flynn.” But quite apart from any references to previous material, the actor’s latest taxi-related role gives him material that actually allows him to exercise his acting chops.
De Niro has received much criticism in recent years for taking on lightweight roles, and in that sense his role in “Being Flynn” is redemptive. The role and the subject matter here are serious — addressing homelessness and a strained father-son relationship that illustrates how families exist together or break apart.
The movie opens with De Niro’s narration as we see his character walking into his place of work, a taxi cab depot where he works as a driver.
“America has produced only three classic writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and me,” De Niro says, setting up his character as one with delusions of grandeur. The narration continues: “I’m Jonathan Flynn. Everything I write is a masterpiece.”
Pretty soon there is a second narrator cutting in on the tale. This is Nicholas Flynn, played by Paul Dano. The father-son dual narration borders on the comical to begin with, contrasting with the glum tale that is about to unfold.
The story here comes from the memoirs of the real-life Nick Flynn, published in 2004 under the adult title “Another Bull**** Night in Suck City.” In the book, Flynn reflects on his own experience of reuniting with his estranged father.
In Weitz’s version, De Niro as the estranged father does not last long as a taxi driver. His habit of spiking his refreshment drinks with liquor runs him into trouble when he is caught driving under the influence and loses his cab driver’s license. Abrasive and angry, he soon enough loses his apartment, too, and is out on the streets.
Like his father, Nicholas Flynn is also something of a lost soul, who by chance drifts into working at a center that provides accommodation for the homeless. It is there that he meets his father.
If it were not for the fact that this is based on a true story, we might be saying, “Oh, come on! What are the chances of that?” But according to Nick Flynn’s memoirs, that is precisely what happened.
The tale that follows is starkly told, addressing the harsh realities of homelessness. In one particularly compelling scene, the father figure Jonathan is seen walking the streets on a frozen night. He ends up lying on an exhaust vent that blows hot air from the neighborhood library. As he lays himself out among other street folk, his son narrates: “My father is an invisible man in an invisible room in the invisible city.”
In another nod to De Niro’s work in “Taxi Driver,” the actor is again given a scene in front of a mirror. In “Taxi Driver,” the iconic mirror scene saw De Niro’s character pumping himself up. But in “Flynn” we find the actor regarding his reflection with mingled horror and regret. “What happened to my face?” he asks himself. “Why do I look like this?”
There is meat to this role for De Niro. Meanwhile, Dano wanders through the movie with a general look of bewilderment on his face at all times. Perhaps the expression is suitable for a character who drifts through life with few aims or ambitions. But it makes it all the more surprising that in the end, this character actually makes good.
One who does get left behind is the boy’s mother, played by Julianne Moore. She is only seen in flashback sequences — a minor role for such a good actress — that illustrate how the younger Flynn’s father left them.
Throughout, this movie does not gloss over its dark subject matter, yet does not have the impact one might expect.
This may in part be a product of the soundtrack, provided by English singer-songwriter Badly Drawn Boy, who previously wrote the soundtrack to Weitz’s 2002 film “About a Boy.”
For that movie the music seemed to fit — pleasant enough, but not hugely moving. “Being Flynn” would have benefited from a more striking soundtrack, but then as a whole this movie is not hugely striking. It is a story told, simply and matter-of-factly.
Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Robert De Niro, Paul Dano and Julianne Moore
Coming soon to Indonesia