' ' Cinema Romantico: Last Flag Flying

Monday, November 27, 2017

Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” is a sorta-sequel to Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” (1973), each one based on a Daryl Ponsican book, and if the characters in Linklater’s film have different names and situations they are nevertheless spiritual kin, though obviously much older given time’s passage, and “Last Flag Flying”, for better, for worse, feels that age. Not just in their excursion to get cellphones, a comical contrast to the more off-color side trips that Ashby rendered, but how Ashby’s characters were prone more to reckless whims of the moment, if often dissatisfied with the present, while Linklater’s characters are more concerned with matters of the past. “Last Flag Flying”, after all, is set in 2003, employing the Iraq invasion as a means to retroactively consider the emotional quagmire of war. And if “The Last Detail” ended not simply by forgoing any Grand Lessons but sort of coldly chuckling at thought that any might exist, “Last Flag Flying” takes a more positive approach even as it mostly sidesteps sentimentality.

“Last Flag Flying” concerns Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) enlisting his ex-military buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), to help him bury his marine son, Larry Jr., who just died a hero in the Middle East, at Arlington. Alas, upon learning the military’s story of how Larry Jr. perished is fictive, Larry Sr. and his pals, in the company of Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), forgo the national military cemetery to take Larry Jr. home to New Hampshire and bury him in civilian clothes. It’s a road movie, in other words, like its forefather, though Linklater’s confection is less nasty and satirical than “The Last Detail”, which underlined its off-color action jaunty military-themed tunes, like “American Patrol”, whereas “Last Flag Flying’s” soundtrack, composed by Graham Reynolds, is more conventionally heartfelt.

Sometimes you worry that conventionality will sink the film. Indeed, it opens with Larry Sr. re-introducing himself to Sal at the empty bar the latter owns. That the night devolves into them tying one on, and that the morning begins by Sal drinking stale beer and eating leftover pizza, felt so obvious I could only roll my eyes, and even if I did not know from previews that their mutual other Mueller the Mauler, was a preacher, I would have strongly suspected it anyway, because if characters are a hungover on a Sunday morning where else can they wind up but a church? And by the time Mueller is looking Sal up and down with admonishments of “Lord have mercy”, “Last Flag Flying” threatens Mitch Albom-ish molasses. Thankfully, however, once the characters hit the road, the movie settles into an episodic yet laid-back groove, more devoted to meaningful conversation than antics, and repeatedly diffusing the narrative bombs that seem set to go off, like meeting the mother of their old Vietnam pal in which possible conflict gives way to the harsh truth that sometimes telling a lie is the best policy.

The movie’s refusal to make a scene, however, doesn’t quite extend to Cranston’s performance, riffing too hard on Jack Nicholson’s ribald “Last Detail” ringleader. (In one shot, seen from a distance, of Cranston in a black jacket and stocking cap, a cigar in hand, he almost looks like Nicholson). But if Nicholson was willing to let himself be the butt of the joke, Cranston plays the part as if he already knows the joke and wants to laugh along with us, exerting too much Life of the Party effort. Better is Fishburne, never becoming an overbearing clerical scold even as he exudes a genuine, hard-won faith, while Carell dials up his wallflower tendencies in some movies to fine effect.

If Sal and Mueller get predominantly more dialogue than Larry Sr., Linklater makes sure we never forget him, keeping him in shots when the other two verbally spar, staring out the window or listening intently. If the Larry of “The Last Detail” was impressionable, so is Larry of “Last Flag Flying”, and is why Sal becomes a variation of Walter Sobchak to The Dude in “The Big Lebowski”, kind of pushing Larry Sr. forward with each less-than-traditional decision, made believable because Larry Sr. wants to do right by his son and isn’t quite sure he’s up to the task. And though the ending seems primed for a dramatic face-off over whether or not to bury Larry Jr. in his uniform, this possible clash delicately, smartly evaporates, while a concluding twist that could have played as irksome narrative predestination instead comes across like a father finding peace and the perfect thematic punctuation. A soldier’s story belongs to him or her, not me, not you, and not anyone else.

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