Once, a few years ago, I was having breakfast with a couple, friends of a friend, who were complete strangers to me, when the boyfriend announced, loud enough for the next booth to hear, that he had recently given his girlfriend chlamydia. He was making a point, I think, about STDs and romantic misadventure being a part of life or something, and must have thought he was coming off as an edgy and self-deprecating raconteur, but he could immediately tell from the way his girlfriend’s face went white that he had made a huge miscalculation.
In that moment, I saw so clearly, as if in a divine revelation, how he could have salvaged the anecdote and his dignity: Immediately say two more things in a similar vein, but ten to twenty percent more ridiculous, so he could plausibly claim to have said the chlamydia thing as a goof. I gave my scoutmaster chlamydia, too. And I gave my great-aunt rickets. Sometimes the only way out is deeper in.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that guy as I was watching Flag Day, Sean Penn’s directorial follow-up to The Last Face, the most derided Cannes competition title in recent memory. Surely the only reason Flag Day is in competition at Cannes this year is because a spooked festival director Thierry Frémaux is trying to convince everyone that all along he was doing a bit.
“Never trust a bastard born on Flag Day.” This totally authentic bit of American folk wisdom comes early on in Flag Day’s interminable first act, in reference to John Vogel (Penn), a high-living, big-dreaming, compulsive liar whose charisma captivates even as he leaves a trail of bounced checks and broken promises in his wake. Eventually an arsonist, a bank robber and a counterfeiter, he leaves a legacy of ashes for his children, Jennifer and Nick (played by Penn’s real-life daughter Dylan and son Hopper as teens and adults), particularly Jennifer, who, living with her recovering-alcoholic mother, falls under his spell, then tries to break it.
Why Flag Day? Because Vogel is America, stupid. In voiceover, Jennifer tells us that her father loved Flag Day because it was like the whole country was celebrating his birthday(?), and repeated montages of fireworks, patriotic parades and flags underscore the point. All of these fireworks, parades and flags are obviously celebrations of Independence Day; the word “Flag Day” does not appear in the memoir ‘Flim-Flam Man’ by the real-life Jennifer Vogel.
Why would it? Flag Day isn’t a real holiday. This movie practices a form of gaslighting not seen since the Leap Day episode of 30 Rock. Did Penn believe that if he used Independence Day in the movie that he would have to pay somebody royalties? And decide instead to use a knockoff holiday that isn’t under copyright? I literally cannot conceive of a more plausible explanation.
Sean Penn used to be able to give performances with an alchemical balance of dangerous cockiness and wormy need, like in At Close Range or The Falcon and the Snowman. In Flag Day, he doesn’t have a director who can help him find the right mixture, or else has lost the ability entirely. He’s either larger-than-life, with a hair-trigger temper and elevated taste for classical music (“Gimme my GODDAM Chopin record!”, he screams in one domestic dispute), or else totally pathetic, slipping into another one of his adenoidal voices, like in I Am Sam or Milk, whenever the ageing and now-pathetic Vogel insists to his daughter that he’s an “entrepreneur.”
Every time he does something physical you can see him acting so damn hard: the exaggerated wary flex when he slumps his shoulders; the telegraphed violent discomfort when he stabs his fork at a plate of eggs. The material he’s given his daughter Dylan is shrill and screamy, but everyone in this movie is doing career-worst work. Eddie Marsan has one scene and not enough time to decide on an accent. Josh Brolin shows up looking as swole as Ron Perlman and has eight lines of dialogue; they are the eight worst line readings of his estimable career.
I googled this movie immediately after the screening and Miles Teller was still listed among the top-billed cast; he’s not in it, and I can’t think of what role in the final cut he would have dropped out of.
What happened here? It feels as if a whole subplot was cut, then the movie was padded back out with as much flashback-sequence B-roll as possible. It takes forever to really get going; 30-year-old Dylan Penn plays more than half her scenes as a teenager in unflattering wigs. (Hopper Penn is barely in the film but fares even worse; his five-o-clock shadow is conspicuous in the scenes in which he plays a teenager, he looks like Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone in Hot Rod.)
The scenes of Jennifer’s childhood are endless montages, with repetitive blown-out happy-families memories and blatant Terrence Malick ripoffs of the same hand caressing the same strands of wheat from several different angles, and the whole thing is tied together with pretentious and solecistic voiceover delivered by Dylan Penn and surely written by her father as they laboured to salvage the movie in the edit.
This is a cathartic Bad-Dad apologia from an IRL divorced dad with a lot of demons – a kind of family reenactment therapy session, in which Sean Penn and his adult children remake At Close Range, only with him in the Christopher Walken criminal-paterfamilias role and his adult children stepping into the shoes of Sean and his brother Chris. But it’s incredibly self-aggrandising of Sean Penn to elevate his neuroses about his failures as a father into such a histrionic statement about America dreaming.
To be fair, there are laughs to be had in Flag Day, moments where Penn’s banty performance and Vogel’s extremely unlikely dialogue harmonise to a pitch of maybe-intentional absurdity. But Penn saves these moments for himself and himself alone – how ungenerous of him, to leave the impression that only his ass is covered.
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