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Bond of brothers: Carell, Cranston and Fishburne on a journey of discovery in ‘Last Flag Flying’

Don’t look now, but we’re at a point on the Google Calendar when a movie set in the early 2000s can have a legitimate ring of nostalgia to it, and the humor springs from our knowing chuckles at how things were so different way back when.

Take the scene in which the trio of middle-aged Vietnam veterans played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne find themselves in a Manhattan electronics store in 2003, and they wind up buying these relatively new gadgets known as cellular phones. (You flip them open and raise the miniature antenna, and ta-da! Dial a number.)

It’s hilarious. It’s perfect. It reminds us of how we were all truly amazed and delighted when we first got a cellphone, and how the first dozen calls we made were simply to say to someone, “You’ll never guess where I’m calling from.”

Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” is a very funny film, with myriad scenes crackling with sharp wit, but it is not a comedy. Not when the subject matter is a heartbroken widower determined to bury his son – a Marine killed in Iraq – not in Arlington Cemetery, but back home in New Hampshire, next to the boy’s mother.

This film is all about the journey, physical and otherwise, as three men who fought together in a long-ago war and then drifted apart are reunited decades later, bonded by the heroism and tragic losses of the past, and leaning on one another in the aftermath of yet another inexplicable war, another unimaginable death.

Steve Carell, continuing his impressive string of accomplished film performances (“Foxcatcher,” “The Big Short,” “Battle of the Sexes”), is Doc. With his bottom-shelf prescription glasses and his sad-sack mustache and his unassuming demeanor, Doc is such an invisible personality his old Marine Corps buddy Sal (Cranston) doesn’t even recognize him when Doc orders up a beer at Sal’s crummy dive of a bar.

Sal’s the polar opposite of Doc. He’s a hard-drinking, ruggedly handsome, ungracefully aging ladies’ man who fancies himself the life of the party – even when he’s not at a party. (Sal’s not above trying to pick up a much younger woman at a post-funeral reception.)

Doc hasn’t just wandered into Sal’s bar. He was able to track down his old pal through this amazing invention known as the internet, which also helps them find their Marine buddy Mueller (Fishburne), a former party animal now a happily married family man, born again and preaching at his own church.

A gung-ho Sal and a reluctant Mueller agree to accompany Doc to Delaware to pick up his son’s body, and they wind up staying with Doc as he transports the body to New Hampshire.

From left, Bryan Cranston as Sal, Steve Carrell as Doc, and Laurence Fishburne as Mueller in “Last Flag Flying.” (Courtesy of Wilson Webb)

Much of “Last Flag Flying” consists of the three old friends talking, laughing, reminiscing, busting one another’s humps, getting supremely ticked off at one another, and then more of the same. Some of the memories of their war make them laugh so hard they’re falling over; other recollections are still too raw and painful to address in detail. The buddy chemistry among Fishburne, Cranston and Carell is a marvel to behold.

It’s a cathartic trip for Doc, who finds himself alone, having recently buried his wife and preparing to bury their son. He is, of course, profoundly broken, but he believes he was blessed to have had such a beautiful family for at least a time. What a subtle and moving performance from Carell, never more so than in a final scene that will tear you apart.

“Last Flag Flying” is based on the Darryl Ponicsan novel of the same name from 2005. That was a sequel to Ponicsan’s 1970 work “The Last Detail,” which was adapted into the classic Hal Ashby film from 1973 starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid.

Not that “Last Flag Flying” is the movie is a sequel to “The Last Detail.” The characters have different names, different military backgrounds, different lives.

It’s a stand-alone film. Maybe a sequel in terms of some themes, and the general plot device of a transformative train trip.

This is one of the best movies of 2017.

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