Over the course of his 32-year career, Richard Linklater has become the doyen of sensitive movies about boys, men and boys becoming men. If “Boyhood” is his magnum opus, it’s because “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock,” “Bad News Bears,” “Bernie” and the splendid “Before” trilogy had already broached that film’s themes about growing up while time marches forward. Linklater’s gift as a storyteller lies in his ability to simultaneously needle and adore the teen horndogs and middle-aged bunglers who populate his work. He is, above all, a humanist.
That Linklater charisma is amiss in his new movie, “Last Flag Flying,” which premiered Thursday at the ongoing New York Film Festival. This road-trip drama remains as down-to-earth as anything the director has done, but it’s almost jarring how gray and lethargic it is from beginning to end. If Linklater weren’t an accomplished auteur, I’d be inclined to say this isn’t the film he set out to make.
It’s a shame, too, because the mismatched cast has potential. “Last Flag Flying,” based on Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name, opens with Steve Carell ambling into a near-empty Virginia dive bar. The year is 2003. Carell plays Doc, a downtrodden Vietnam vet there to reunite with the joint’s owner, Sal (Bryan Cranston), an old military buddy who’s become a foul-mouthed, scruffy souse. Sal barely recognizes Doc ― time’s weathering effect is a Linklater signature ― but soon they’re paying a visit to another former chum, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a reformed preacher once known as a libidinous renegade. Here are three friends, bonded by the monstrosity of war, faced with the comprehension that the chapters of their lives have slipped past them. They aren’t the same people anymore.
That alone would be a bittersweet premise, but “Last Flag” goes for a double whammy: Doc lost his wife to breast cancer earlier that year, and now his son has died in the Iraq War. Lonely and dazed, Doc asks Sal and Mueller to travel with him to retrieve the body and bury his only child. Despite how much the men have changed during their 30 years apart, they are the only ones who will understand what it’s like to grapple with combat casualties firsthand.
Much of “Last Flag” is a travelogue, which means it belongs to a genre whose DNA encompasses a cocktail of antics and self-discovery. Linklater aims for both, but the staid results shortchange the sweet nuance that should exist between such highs and lows. Each of the three characters has fixed traits, presented upfront and hammered home again and again. A hardened alcoholic squabbling with a sober reverend can only sustain so much intrigue, but “Last Flag” stretches that design across two sluggish hours. Of course these men will land at some form of mutual appreciation once it’s all over, which is why it’s dull to see characters so defined by a few narrow adjectives (Sal: bitter, buzzed; Mueller: righteous, dismissive; Doc: despondent, wistful).
Even more disappointing, “Last Flag” more or less wastes the aching probe at its core. A Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez) tells Doc that his son died with heroic and necessary poise, but a young compatriot (J. Quinton Johnson) later informs the men that the death was far less dignified than advertised. With that, a depressing realization: The military to which Doc devoted two years of his life took his baby boy and lied to him about how it happened. That notion of an untrustworthy government gives “Last Flag” a timely hook, despite on-the-nose banter about how wild it is that cellphones exist and Eminem is white. The operating paradox ― honest service within dishonest conditions ― is spoiled by unrelenting drowsiness. There’s a lot of open road in this movie, but it never feels like it’s going very far.
Altogether, “Last Flag Flying” doesn’t live up to its ideas. Carell, who has flexed his dramatic muscles to fascinating results over the past few years, stands out as a quiet ball of rage, while Cranston hams it up and Fishburne seems nonchalant about the whole thing. Together, they’re an unremarkable trio. Again, that’s odd for a Linklater film; his previous project, last year’s breezy “Everybody Wants Some!!,” thrived on the chemistry of its ensemble. Carell, Cranston and Fishburne nail the less sitcom-ish levity that recurs throughout the movie, but they can’t vibe with the melancholy tone and stylistic tedium that surrounds them. As a result, “Last Flag Flying” operates at half-mast.
“Last Flag Flying” opens in theaters Nov. 3.