THE STORY – Jennifer Vogel’s father, John, is larger than life. As a child, she marvels at his magnetizing energy and ability to make everything feel like a grand adventure. John teaches her so much about love and joy, but he also happens to be the most notorious counterfeiter in U.S. history. Jennifer now struggles to rise above the wreckage of the past while reconciling the inescapable bond between a daughter and her father.
THE CAST – Dylan Penn & Sean Penn
THE TEAM – Sean Penn (Director), Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Jennifer Vogel’s (Dylan Penn) father, John (Sean Penn), left her family when she was young. He bought a farmhouse they couldn’t afford, spent money they didn’t have fixing it up, and when the debtors came calling, he ran, eventually settling into a nice life in a house on a lake. By the time she was a teenager, Jennifer had run away from her mother and her new beau (who would get drunk and crawl into Jennifer’s bed) to live with him, only for that to come to an end after he robbed a bank. Jennifer got her life together and became a journalist and then a best-selling author.
Her autobiographical book about her father and her relationship with him, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” is the source material for Sean Penn’s latest film, “Flag Day,” and it takes the messiness of John Vogel’s life to heart a bit too much. This is an untidy film, veering wildly between serious coming-of-age character study and exaggerated family drama. It is as if Penn has taken all the worst tendencies of all the directors he’s worked with over his lauded career (including his own worst instincts) and crammed them all into one film, one in which he gives yet another undeniably fantastic performance.
Penn is in his element as John Vogel: He’s a charmer with a bit of a rough-and-tumble, bad-boy underbelly, a man trying desperately to achieve the kind of success he can be proud of, but unable to partly because of his own narcissism. He has Vogel pegged from his earliest moments onscreen. He gives as sympathetic a portrayal as possible while never forgetting that the man is also a criminal who abandoned his wife and kids. Unfortunately, John is almost a supporting character here, all the better to give Penn’s daughter Dylan (a dead ringer for her mother, Robin Wright) a showcase in the leading role of Jennifer (at least when she’s older). She doesn’t get off to the best start, blandly intoning the banalities of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay in a voice-over that is thankfully used sparingly throughout most of the film. As a director, Penn at least gives his daughter some fantastic scene partners to work with, but most of them are in the film for five minutes or less: Regina King, Eddie Marsan, Dale Dickey, Josh Brolin, and Norbert Leo Butz. Katheryn Winnick has more scenes to make an impact as Jennifer’s mother and is a sympathetic presence even when the character is making poor choices. While Penn, the actress, does improve as the film goes on, the script doesn’t ask all that much of her – most of the scenes are one-note, allowing the proximity of scenes in which she displays conflicting emotions to substitute for actual conflicting emotions. Gifted with an overabundance of close-ups by her father and cinematographer Daniel Moder, Penn does have a compelling screen presence. Still, the film mostly requires her to just wistfully recall happier memories with her father and be angry at herself for trusting him, which feels like a bit of a waste.
What really fails the film, though, is Penn’s direction. He has put Malick-ian shots of wheat fields, “Mystic River”-style melodramatic yelling and crying, and video filters that call to mind Gus Van Sant’s direction of “Milk” into a blender to make this film. These things are fine on their own and could work well together, but they don’t here. Penn cannot corral the multiple tones he’s working with into a cohesive whole, making them all come off like the worst possible choice. The use of mixed media feels evident and trite. The melodrama inspires laughter. The artsy close-ups of hands moving through fields of tall grass swaying in the wind feel like it comes from a different film altogether. Penn somehow manages to make everything work together just once in the film’s climactic scene. All the different styles he’s been working with coalesce into a beautiful whole for that one and only scene. It’s so well-done that it makes you mourn for the film that “Flag Day” could have been if Penn had just been able to find that balance throughout.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Sensitive performances and an intriguing real-life story.
THE BAD – Poorly judged tone, an annoying insistence on close-ups, and a distracting supporting cast of one-scene cameos.
THE OSCARS – None