Despite having retired from acting and directing in order to concentrate on writing awful novels, Sean Penn – like a bad Steven Soderbergh – is back once again. Returning to Cannes after the thrashing his last film, 2016’s The Last Face, received, Penn is either a masochist or a recidivist and the kindest thing to say straight off the bat is that Flag Day is something of an improvement on his previous effort.
With a screenplay by Jez Butterworth, Flag Day tells the story of the relationship between occasional criminal John Vogel (Penn) and his teenage daughter Jennifer (Penn’s real-life daughter Dylan Penn). John is an imaginative and adventurous free spirit, but he’s also unreliable and increasingly endangering himself and his family, ready to split at a moments notice and leave his long-suffering and increasingly booze-sodden wife Patty (Katheryn Winnick) to pick up the pieces. Rounding out the family is Vogel’s older son Nick (Hopper Penn, another of the director’s offspring), a soulful but largely silent presence.
The focus of Flag Day is Jennifer as she grows up and begins to understand that her father is not the legend he wishes to project. He’s the classic case of a con man who believes his own con. He calls himself an entrepreneur, but little more than a midwestern Del Boy Trotter, usually in way above his head. Jennifer leaves her family home with a newly-sober Patty when her new partner sexually assaults her. She moves in with her dad for a while and things seem to be going well until he spectacularly self-sabotages with an ill-thought-out bank robbery. Suddenly face-to-face with the gulf between her father’s narcissistic self-image and the reality before her, she goes Into the Wild for a while, rebelling, doing some drugs, hitching around until she finds her salvation in journalism at which point her father tries to re-enter her life.
Of the many problems the film has, it’s the different plots that never quite bounce off each other. Jennifer almost has an Erin Brockovich-style environmental subplot going on, but like many things it is set up and then abandoned. John is supposed to be a master forger, but short of one very brief moment, we get no idea of this – no insight. Worst of all, Flag Day is sploshed with a voiceover from Jennifer which feels so incessant it could be mistaken for an audiobook.
Penn is quite good at making his character both unlikeable and charming at the same time. There’s a sociopathic honesty to his delusions. Dylan Penn also does a fine, if somewhat anonymous, job. The real tragedy here is that Sean Penn has been a fine director, with some genuinely great movies under his belt. One hopes that Penn will return to form, but on the evidence of Flag Day this could be just another case of deluded wishful thinking.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty