'Being Flynn': A lot for De Niro to chew on

THE FIRST thing you see in "Being Flynn" is Robert De Niro behind the wheel of a taxi cab, pulling into city traffic.

Travis Bickle, back in the saddle?

No, but aggressively citing one of De Niro's most iconic roles is a nervy signal from director Paul Weitz that De Niro will be working harder here than he did in "Little Fockers."

And there's a lot for De Niro to chew on - he plays Jonathan Flynn, a self-described genius novelist who makes windy claims to greatness. In his own mind, he stands shoulder to shoulder with J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. Publishers have other opinions.

In truth, his writing career extends mainly to bad checks, leading to a stint in prison that's separated him permanently from his wife (Julianne Moore) and son (Paul Dano).

Dano plays Nick Flynn, a directionless young man who's bunking in a renovated strip club and working part time in a homeless shelter.

He hasn't seen his father in decades, then one day dad just shows up, elbowing his way into Nick's life as though the previous 20 years never happened. (For fatherless Nick, they didn't.)

De Niro has enough charisma to sell us on the idea that Jonathan's con-man bluster can get past Nick's wary defenses. A tentative relationship develops.

It's quickly tested when deteriorating Jonathan starts showing up at the homeless shelter where Nick works, and the elder man's increasingly bizarre behavior makes Nick's job impossible.

"Being Flynn" starts to falter here for fundamental reasons. You don't really buy Dano and De Niro as father and son, a disappointment in light of the fact that Weitz showed such a shrewd grasp of the dynamic in "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." (Weitz, who adapted Nick Hornby in the former, is working here from Nick Flynn's Another B.S. Night in Suck City.)

And if you don't buy the relationship, it's hard to buy in when Nick's frustration leads to bad choices. (I also have a hard time sympathizing with the "problems" of a guy whose eager, awesome girlfriend is Olivia Thirlby.)

What keeps you watching is its gritty look at life in a homeless shelter, the sort of unexpectedly compelling, slice-of-life context that made "The Soloist" so compelling, and so tough to watch.

"Being Flynn" has a more conventional resolution, built on De Niro's most important scene. His character, caught between delusion and clarity, tries to pull himself together just long enough to give his son advice at the one moment he needs it most.

It shows he can still do it, when he wants to.

Being Flynn

Directed by Paul Weitz. With Chris Chalk, Dale Dickey, Robert De Niro, Lili Taylor, Olivia Thirlby, Julianne Moore, Joe Urban, Katherine Waterston, Victor Rasuk, Paul Dano. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity).