Whether he’s talking love, dreams, music, baseball, or Madonna’s pap smear, it’s the craft of conversation itself that has always interested Richard Linklater. Moreover, it’s how much these lyrical, if occasionally rambling treatises reveal about their speakers (not to mention the worlds built around them), that have always made his movies so interesting to us. The filmmaker’s penchant for the furthest conceivable thing from what you’d call small-talk has provided the cornerstone for each of his strongest pictures, between his breakout Slacker and his latest endeavor, Last Flag Flying. But even if diatribes bellowed from jock houses, band classes, and Austin street corners are only thinly veiled in-roads to Linklater’s grander poetry on life itself, his beyond-the-page expertise on the subjects at hand is in large part what makes them worth listening to.
Therein lies the missing piece in Last Flag Flying, a rare instance in which Linklater sounds like he’s speaking from outside of his element. In talking through the mouths of three long-stateside Vietnam veterans—one of whom, Doc (Steve Carell), is mourning a son who has just died in battle in Iraq—the filmmaker, armed with a co-writer in The Last Detail novelist Darryl Ponicsan, dives into a different class of discussion than we’ve seen across his oeuvre.
Drifting languidly from one patch of patter to the next, we do hit reoccurring Linklater trademarks: jokes, jabs, sex stories, and dreamy postulations about the meaning of it all. Instead of complementing their conversational company, however, the charms of these authorial rituals wind up hard to spot among topics of war, grief, addiction, religion, and the transgressions of the U.S. government. Perhaps more damningly, the blood of these subjects is just as evasive.
The script doesn’t exactly aim to shy away from the heavier notes you’d expect from a story about losing a child to warfare; Doc and his estranged military buddies’ journey back and forth between New Hampshire and Virginia—undertaken to retrieve the former’s deceased son and ensure his proper burial—while tangling with trickier questions about the ethics and efficacy of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But softening the blow of what could otherwise be Linklater’s hardest hitting project is that his usual gift for gab feels transposed among predetermined talking points.
When the vets lament their tough choices of yore and bicker over the valor of drink and Jesus in staving off encroaching demons, it doesn’t quite feel like—per Linklater’s usual gambit—”real guys talking about real life,” rather like what we civilians deign to imagine what soldiers must chat about in their trying hours.
Inscrutably enough, Last Flag Flying is at its strongest when it sheds the shackles of its admittedly worthy central themes. Bryan Cranston, armed with a New York accent and twice as much dialogue as his screen partners have combined, bounds from oral dissertations on reality television to uninvited anecdotes about his romantic life to bombastic bemusement over a cell phone peddler’s sales pitch, sailing just shy of too broad (but never quite breaching that barrier) all the way. Laurence Fishburne isn’t gifted as fruitful an opportunity, as his born again pastor character is relegated foremost to advertisements of the Good Book, and fair-weather castigations of the hard-drinking Sal’s (Cranston) licentious lifestyle.
Though a few supporting players are peppered throughout the program, including a particularly strong J. Quinton Johnson as a stoic marine who served with Doc’s boy, the show really belongs to the dyspeptic Cranston and closed-mouthed Carell, whose muted performance as the tear-stained Doc may not be a career best, but is certainly among his most surprising. Though neither has the usual Linklater gold to work with, they, and even Fishburne when estranged from his beat long enough to show off the life force we know he has in him, eke out enough humanity to render Last Flag Flying more than the sum of its parts. Even when Linklater’s speaking beyond his station, he always has something worthwhile to say.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Tell Michael which Before movie you love the most (#TeamSunset) on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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