- - Thursday, March 8, 2012

“Being Flynn” is a movie about the sad decline of a once respected figure. But I’m not talking about the grudging father-son relationship at the heart of the story. I’m talking about Robert De Niro, the legendary actor who has firmly and perhaps finally cemented his own washed-up irrelevance.

It’s been hard to watch Mr. De Niro for a long time now. For roughly a decade, the man who gave life to Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta has squandered the bulk of his energy on increasingly tepid comedies in the Fokkers series and low-rent action pictures that would barely compete in the direct-to-video market without his presence. Mr. De Niro has shown up, said his lines and cashed the checks — but provided little in the way of entertainment or engagement in return.

“Being Flynn” should have given the actor the chance to redeem himself. Based on author Nick Flynn’s druggy coming-of-age memoir “Another Bull— Night in Suck City,” it’s the autobiographical story of Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), an aimless and angry young man who re-connects with his long absent father, Jonathan (Mr. De Niro), while working at a shelter for the homeless. A back story involving Flynn’s mother (Julianne Moore) fills in a few emotional blanks.

Jonathan Flynn is an ex-con, a loser, a wannabe writer, a minor con artist and a terrible father who quickly ends up staying in his son’s shelter. Mr. De Niro gives him a manic, volatile streak — smiling and friendly one second, gesturing wildly out of control the next. But it always seems forced. If the idea is to create sympathy for this sad, broken-down man, it mostly fails. Instead, it creates sympathy for Mr. De Niro, who has been reduced to cheap camera mugging and rote mood-swing displays. He’s supposed to be playing a desperate man, but he comes off as one himself.

As his son Nick, Mr. Dano effortlessly outperforms the elder actor. Nick embodies a host of contradictions and gives the movie an ambivalent center. With his long, greasy hair and his homeless-shelter-chic look, Mr. Dano gives the movie a certain hipster cool. HIs is a strong performance and, like much of Mr. Dano’s work so far, full of promise. Sadly, however, it is not strong enough to hold this uncertain and inert movie together.

Director Paul Weitz seems to enjoy telling stories about difficult young men who find themselves after being forced to confront the responsibilities of adulthood. His previous films include “American Pie,” “In Good Company” and “About a Boy,” the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s eponymous novel. “Being Flynn” most resembles the latter picture. But while it occasionally adopts a Hornbyesque tone of ironic self-amusement, it’s neither clever nor funny enough to compete in the same space. Instead, Mr. Weitz settles for a sort of head-fake sentimentality, adopting a wry and distant pose that masks a conventionally saccharine outlook.

In the end, “Being Flynn” has the same trouble as many of Mr. Weitz’s protagonists: It just doesn’t know what it wants to be.

★★

TITLE: “Being Flynn

CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Weitz

RATING: R for sex, drug-use, language

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS