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David Lee, David Lee
Robert De Niro stars "Jonathan Flynn" in Paul Weitz's BEING FLYNN, a Focus Features release.

"BEING FLYNN" — ★★★ — Paul Dano, Robert DeNiro, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Lili Taylor, Wes Studi; R (language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity); Broadway

Memoirs as they are practiced today can feel like self-serving, self-pitying exercises in self-help. But watching "Being Flynn," it's hard to begrudge playwright/ poet and memoirist Nick Flynn his musings, mostly about his homeless, alcoholic and delusional father Jonathan. The younger Flynn paid his dues and went through the ringer for this story, which he put on the page in 2004.

Paul Weitz's gritty, sweet but mostly unsentimental film of Flynn's book puts a flawed, unpleasantly realistic face on homelessness and gives Robert De Niro his best role in a decade.

The film follows two narratives and two narrators. There's Jonathan (De Niro), an angry, bigoted old man with some of the trappings, a bit of the discipline and all of the bravado of a celebrated "artist." He tells one and all that there are three "classic American writers," and that he's one of them. He's never been published, never held a real job for any real length of time. But his ego buries that reality behind delusions of talent and the glory that will come when "my masterpiece, 'The Button Man,'" is published.

And then there's Jonathan's estranged twenty-something son. Nick, played by Paul Dano, as unaffected an actor as there is, is a self-absorbed would-be writer adrift in a haze of booze, infidelity and guilt. He cheats on his girlfriend, doesn't acknowledge his addictive personality and can't seem to find his purpose.

Until, after 18 years, Dad re-enters his life. Nick stumbles into a job at a homeless shelter, and through the men he meets there and the things he sees, the petty degradations of their lives and his — bandaging, clothing and de-lousing them — he might come to grips with this troubling relationship with the homeless man he long knew through the old man's pretentious, insanely over-confident letters.

Dano is perfectly cast as a troubled guy bent on not being his father's keeper. It is up to the people who work with him in the Boston's Harbor St. Inn shelter to point out how the return of his father, to his life and to this very shelter, is ripping Nick up.

Weitz is back in his "About a Boy" comfort zone, and skillfully surrounds Nick with a rough but caring crowd who run the shelter (Wes Studi and Lili Taylor), and a sympathetic love-interest (Olivia Thirlby) who works there because she has issues of her own. Julianne Moore radiates a sort of exhausted pain in her flashback scenes playing Nick's dead mom.

Weitz, in adapting this book, pulls his punches at times, and seems intent on reaching for the obvious — Jonathan's trite repetition of the mantra, "We're put on this Earth to help other people."

But "Being Flynn," for all its light, hopeful tone in a world of despair, in unsparing in showing that despair. And De Niro, the very picture of the human wreck struggling every hour, with every pretentious pronouncement, to deny his current state and his anonymous fate, is a marvel — menacing and mean, a character just on the human side of caricature. With lunatic wit and the hair-trigger temper that he's shown in his greatest performances, De Niro makes the challenge both father and son face in "Being Flynn" worth exploring.

"Being Flynn" is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity; running time: 102 minutes.