Most directors who work steadily will whiff at some point, but relatively few experience the level of scorn and derision that greeted Sean Penn’s The Last Face, a “sustained tone-deaf fiasco” that we collectively deemed the single worst film released in 2017—even more dire than The Emoji Movie. That’s a hard blow to the ol’ legacy, and it would have been understandable had Penn either given up in disgust (he’d already taken a nine-year break from directing following Into The Wild) or taken care to avoid anything potentially risky with his next feature. The man’s no coward, though, and with Flag Day, his Cannes-selected (but then so was The Last Face) followup, he almost seems to be actively daring the haters to come after him. Not only is this the first time, in 30 years behind the camera, that he’s starred in one of his own movies, but he’s handed the film’s true lead role to his adult daughter, Dylan Penn, who’d previously appeared in just a handful of mostly obscure projects. Add narcissism and nepotism to the list of charges, your honor!
Thankfully, Flag Day isn’t another disaster, though neither is it anywhere near the vicinity of Penn’s best work. Written by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Get On Up, Fair Game), the film is adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story Of My Father’s Counterfeit Life, with Dylan playing Jennifer and Sean as her dad, career criminal (and eventual Unsolved Mysteries case file) John Vogel. We first see the latter in 1992, leading police on a high-speed chase that Jennifer tearfully watches on the news; it’s soon revealed that he’d printed nearly $20 million in phony bills—a skill learned in prison, where he did time for armed robbery. Very little of this illicit activity appears in the movie, however, which depicts John almost exclusively as he’s perceived by Jennifer. Much is made of a ’70s roadside idyll during which he sketches, solely from her description, the welcoming figure seen on a highway sign; decades later, she’s still got that slip of paper, and is still chasing that little girl’s memory of an untamed, rebellious warrior-poet. The truth is considerably uglier, but knowing that doesn’t necessarily help.
Virtually a two-hander—Josh Brolin, Regina King, Eddie Marsan, and others are squandered in tiny, throwaway roles—Flag Day suffers from the same repetitive, wearying cycle of reconciliation and disappointment that tends to make movies about addiction such a drag. By the time she’s a teenager, rocking a goth-inspired ’80s look and corresponding sullen attitude, Jennifer understands who her father is and how little of a priority she represents for him. Like every con artist, however, John has learned to exploit people’s desperate hope that those we love will miraculously change, promising that this time will be different, that now he’s finally got his head on straight. And so the film is pretty much just Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown over and over again, except that it’s more as if Lucy gets distracted by something shiny and wanders off while Charlie Brown dashes toward the designated spot with his eyes trustingly closed. It can be satisfying to see Jennifer call Dad out on his bullshit—at one point, he fakes a phone call with an auto dealership, pretending to request the return of his deposit on a car he’d allegedly bought her, only to turn around and see that she’s unplugged the cord. Mostly, though, wheedling alternates with suffering until John Vogel finally decides that he, at least, has had enough.
Still, many people are likely to be more intrigued by the prospect of dueling Penns than by the saga of Vogel versus Vogel. Dylan closely resembles her mother (at least when Jennifer isn’t emulating Siouxsie Sioux) and tends to fare best when embodying the same watchful stillness often employed by Robin Wright. Sean, on the other hand, can be prone to histrionics, and encourages the same from his daughter; the two of them engage in multiple anguished shouting matches that mistake sheer intensity for emotional truth. (Though Sean won his first Oscar for just such a performance, in Mystic River, so it’s not as if the world has made much effort to rein him in.) Thankfully, that bombast rarely finds its way into Penn’s filmmaking this time around, though he leans fairly hard on nostalgic Americana imagery (even borrowing Terrence Malick’s hand-brushing-tall-wheat bit, which has become a cliché) and keeps interpolating home-movie footage of young Jennifer’s happy memories at moments of distress (a ploy that might have been more effective were the body of the film not shot in slightly soft 16mm, for maximum dreaminess). Ultimately, Flag Day is one of those movies, heavy on expository voiceover narration, that functions primarily as an advertisement for the book from which it was adapted. Will it one day be remembered for introducing the world to a new star? The jury’s still out.