Carell flies the flag
After two Steve Carell movies in quick succession at the LFF, I had a eureka moment. In Battle Of The Sexes, he plays extrovert showman Bobby Riggs, who challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match to prove a point. In Last Flag Flying, he’s the quiet, good natured and broken hearted father of a Marine. Two characters who are poles apart. And an actor with a seriously broad range.
It’s the early 2000s and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) turns up at a bar, looking for one of his buddies from the Vietnam War, even though they’ve not seen each other since those days. He finds the man he’s looking for, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and the two track down the third member of their group, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a preacher. The reason for getting them back together? Doc’s son, a Marine, has been repatriated from Iraq in a coffin and his father wants to give him a suitable funeral.
Richard Linklater’s latest has attracted mixed reviews, from “sentimental” and “contrived” to the more positive “ingenious” and “sincere.” The truth is that it’s not the director at his best, but it’s a lot better than some critics would have you believe. A road movie with the occasional shaggy dog story thrown in, an examination of family ties and patriotism, and a comedy-drama. Although comedy is probably the wrong word here. It is, after all, about a grieving father wanting to give his son the right send-off, so don’t expect it to be overflowing with raucous laughter. But do expect humour mixed in with that seriousness and some moments where it really becomes infectious. Watch out for a sequence on the train when the three veterans, Carell especially, get a fit of the giggles. It’s impossible not to join in.
What makes the film eminently watchable is its three main actors: without them, it would have risked being on shaky ground. As Sal, Cranston gets the showy part, with plenty of swagger, an eye for the ladies and a love of the booze. He’s also anti anything that might smack in the slightest of authority but, like his buddies, he also learns a valuable lesson or two along the way. Fishburne has the hardest role, as the reformed Mueller, now married and a preacher. Initially self-righteous and full of quotes from the good book, he turns out to be more practical and compassionate. But it’s Carell who really shines, with his almost rabbit-like teeth and sense of melancholy, so strong that you just want to give him the biggest and most comforting of hugs.
Set during the aftermath of the Iraq War, it’s recent enough to feel familiar yet distant enough for scenes such as when the three friends buy their first ever mobile phones to be mischievously amusing. And, for the most of the time, Linklater avoids predictably sentimental pitfalls, although you may feel let down by the ending.
While it doesn’t dig too deeply into its themes, Last Flag Flying is a film with warmth, heart and humanity. And Steve Carell.
Last Flag Flying was screened at the London Film Festival. As yet, there is no confirmed release date for the UK.
A lifelong lover of films, I’m at last living the proverbial dream – as a film critic and radio presenter. My blog and podcast, both called Talking Pictures, are award nominated, and I’m heard rabbiting away about movies to my heart’s content every Friday morning on BBC Surrey and BBC Sussex. Favourite film? The Third Man. Career highlight to date? Interviewing Woody Harrelson in his trailer at Pinewood!