Sean Penn’s ‘Flag Day’ is overwrought with bad acting, an aimless script, and choppy direction



Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Somewhere in Hollywood, a good movie about John Vogel, the most notorious counterfeiter in U.S. history, exists. Sean Penn’s “Flag Day,” unfortunately, isn’t that movie.

It’s too bad because the talent assembled here is impressive. Penn, who directed the film, shares co-lead honors with his real-life daughter (with ex-wife, Robin Wright), Dylan Penn. They play John and Jennifer Vogel, a father-daughter dynamic that is supposed to power the bulk of the film. But the point of view of the movie is split between them, dividing screen time and perspective, all the while trying to convince the audience to care about a guy who couldn’t turn down a con, even with two kids.

Big name actors come and go, such as Josh Brolin, Eddie Marsan and Regina King. Neither of them is given a shred of juice to work with in character though, so it comes off (or looks like) Penn asking his acting buddies to stop by for a quick glimpse. It’s insincere and distracting from the heart of the tale.

One can ascertain from the preview that the younger Penn is being primed for a showcase, lined up against her Oscar-winning father. But for most of the movie, all Dylan can do as Jennifer is cry incessantly. While no one would criticize someone for crying and shouting at their dad while he’s in prison, there needs to be more. The easiest route to drama in film is to cry, and it’s done way too often here. While her performance illuminates in some scenes, she isn’t given the proper material in this film to give a full-bodied performance. Just cry. They could have called this movie, “Sad Day” instead. I’m interested in Dylan’s future, but she was never given the material here to produce a performance that compelled.

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Penn’s direction is sloppy. He looks like the guy whose last directorial effort scored a 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, someone who once said they were retired. Considering the grace he brought to “Into the Wild,” his lack of perception here behind the camera is disappointing.

But it’s not as morose and rough as his acting. That’s the biggest ball drop in this film: a powerhouse of a performer being unable to find the heart and soul of the lead character. Instead of digging into John Vogel, Penn just rages or cries through his performance, another poorly chosen shortcut for gravitas. One particular scene with Dylan, featuring a boatload of unintentionally funny tears is flat-out awful. The very definition of overwrought, half-measure acting. I didn’t know if I should be keeping score of teardrops collected; all I wanted was a good movie.

“Flag Day” is painfully not, and the script doesn’t help the cause. The audience is split between Jennifer and John for the entirety of the 107-minute running time, which starts to grate on your brain around the halfway point. We are shuffled off, from one bank robbery to the next apology/confession, before another bad decision by John creates even more drama.

There should have been a more cohesive story about one of them instead of shoving both their points of views into one picture. Should we feel sorry for the girl who keeps going back to her deadbeat and hugely flawed yet “larger than life” dad, or should we feel empathy for a guy who couldn’t stop breaking the law? I left the theater feeling no need to understand or digest either tale, and that’s the sign of a movie with too much on its mind and little focus.

One way to fix “Flag Day” would have been the elder Penn, whose father is Jewish, choosing to either direct or star in the movie, instead of both. The aforementioned award-nominated “Into the Wild” only found him behind the camera, and he was free to make the best picture possible. While some actors can direct themselves in big movies-Ben Affleck for example-it can be a deterrent.

Being a very intense actor especially, Penn could have been stretched thin–even if it looks like a car spinning its wheels furiously while stuck in place. He’s not incapable of giving a bad performance (remember “Gangster Squad”) and it’s not a lack of effort in this misfire, but the actor never finds his way to the character. It drowns the film… not in tears, but in mediocrity.

“Flag Day” opens in theaters in St. Louis this Friday, Aug. 27.