1. When did we lose Robert De Niro? The popular image of Robert De Niro, America's Actor, Master Craftsman, Maestro of Method, has lingered in the public consciousness in spite of his work over the last 20 years rather than because of it. De Niro these days seems far more interested in being The Public Face Of New York City (Non-Jewish Division) than putting much effort into his movies anymore, not that it's stopping him from making them, regardless. Jack Nicholson, an actor of De Niro's stature if not necessarily his skill, has stopped using his fastball over the last decade, too, but at least he's had the decency (or the sloth) to slow down. De Niro keeps running out there, appearing in four movies last year and five more this year. And it's rather obvious he doesn't give a shit. It's not like Willie Mays trying to sneak out one more year with the Mets; after all, Mays wanted to be there even if his body wouldn't cooperate.
2. I emphasize all this because in Being Flynn, De Niro tries for the first time since, I dunno, maybe Casino? (Oh, Jackie Brown. He's great in that too.) An adaptation of the well-regarded memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Being Flynn—the most boring title imaginable, by the way—features De Niro as an alcoholic would-be writer who ends up homeless and living in a homeless shelter where his son (Paul Dano), also a writer, happens to be working. De Niro has a meaty, showy role, and it seems to spark a glimmer of energy in him, finally. Unfortunately, and this is the really sad part ... he pretty much just hams it up, gnawing every ounce of scenery, yelling, screaming, generally playing "crazy" as demonstratively as possible. It's a hambone job to make Anthony Hopkins proud. The problem this time is not that De Niro doesn't care to act; the problem this time, frighteningly, is that it sort of looks like he's forgotten how.
3. The source material for Being Flynn is sharp, caustic, blunt and famously biting; Flynn is an evocative, hypnotic writer who spared no one in his narrative, least of all himself. It's a book that earns its grime and its pain. As directed by Paul Weitz (Little Fockers. Seriously.), though, it's basically a trip through Homeless Land, where everyone's dirty and scuffed in all the right, pretty places. To do Flynn's book justice, you have to dig into the muck, show not only why Flynn's father is a nightmare, but why the son is too. Weitz lacks either the interest or the depths to go too far, to the point where large swaths of the movie make no sense. We meet Flynn's mother (played by Julianne Moore), who is loving and caring and supportive until one day she just kills herself and we're a little bewildered as to why. (And not in a "you can never really know" type of way either.) Weitz wants the surface of grime, but never commits to truly showing anything ugly. Deep down, he wants to warm your heart in a way the book would find repugnant.
4. It doesn't help that he has such a listless lead actor in Dano. Like everyone, I was thrilled by Dano's emergence in There Will Be Blood, and wondered if we had perhaps a new, less actorly Edward Norton, a cherub-faced character actor capable of quiet, twisted menace. Since then, though, he's been a drip, and he absolutely should never be playing conventionally "tortured" leading men like Nick Flynn here. This character needs to be damaged and cruel but essentially decent, but Dano can't quite figure out how to bring him to life; he feels too slippery, more monorail salesman than self-loathing junkie. (My last hope for Dano is his upcoming role as Karl Rove in Young Republicans. If he can't nail that role, one he's seemingly perfect for, I give up. UPDATE: I've been informed Dano's not doing that movie anymore. Well then forget it.) He's sort of a dead spot at the center of the film, and it doesn't help that every time he has a scene with De Niro, Dano rather obviously recedes in the shadow of The Master. Which, as mentioned, causes its own problems.
5. Were you to force me to venture a guess, I'd wager De Niro probably started veering off track because of Analyze This. (As always, blame Billy Crystal.) That was the first time De Niro realized that he not only had an established persona—the joy of De Niro was once that he could essentially play anybody—but that he could profit greatly by parodying it. (Again, Nicholson does this, too, but less shamelessly.) After that, anything went, including that wha? bit in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, in which, good lord, he actually parroted his famous Taxi Driver line.
Nothing that came after that should have been any sort of surprise, I guess. De Niro is now a mascot for movies, for Tribeca, for the '70s, all sorts of things that don't matter nearly as much as they used to, just like him. I kept waiting around for another great understated, humanist De Niro performance, and after Being Flynn it's starting to look clearer that we're not going to get one. He's more "personality" than actor now. It gives me no joy to say this, but you know what? I think he turned into Al Pacino.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.