I’ll say this for Sean Penn’s father-daughter drama Flag Day, which premiered in competition at Cannes on Saturday night: It definitely went better than the last time Penn was here. That was five years ago, when his aid-workers-in-Africa romance The Last Face had a disastrous first screening, followed by a press conference that Penn and star Charlize Theron — who was also his recent ex — grimaced through like divorced spouses at the wedding of their least-favorite child. Compared to that spectacle, the muted reaction for Flag Day probably counts as a win. There were no boos, a few critics turned in positive reviews, and Penn and his new leading lady appear to still be speaking to each other — all the better because she’s his real-life daughter, Dylan.
Based on Jennifer Vogel’s book Flim-Flam Man, the film tracks the ups and downs of the relationship between Vogel, played as an adult by Dylan, and her father Jack, a notorious con artist, bank robber, and counterfeiter, played by Sean. For each of them, it’s a step into new territory: for Sean, his first time directing himself; for Dylan, her first time starring in a movie. Perhaps that explains why, even if most agree the film is hardly a threat to take home the Palme d’Or, the critical establishment seems poised to treat Flag Day much more softly than its predecessor. Unlike The Last Face, which was full of A-list pomposity, this one feels like a small family project. It’s a movie that could have come straight out of the ’90s, when movie stars weren’t juggling multiple franchises and thus had time to star in mid-budget domestic dramas. You can almost see the plastic VHS clamshell.
It’s evident why Penn the actor was drawn to the role of Jack, a charismatic schemer who swirls into and out of his daughter’s life, enchanting her with the vision of a life lived entirely on one’s own terms, before leaving often literal wreckage in his wake. Jack was born on Flag Day, we’re told, and each year he celebrates the holiday with narcissistic abandon. Penn the director aims to make Jack a stand-in for something beautiful and rotten in the American soul, and that rings broadly true in both his impossible self-belief and in his conviction that a Porsche, a new boat, and a lake house should be his birthright. It works less well, though, when Penn attempts to channel the soul of Terrence Malick, with sequences of Dylan’s Jennifer wandering through wheat fields during magic hour and leaden narration that all but screams, “This is based on a memoir!” Penn’s at his best when there are no words involved: musical montages that combine Bob Seger and Edward Hopper, wordless sequences scored to original tunes from Cat Power and Eddie Vedder. (Their presence on the soundtrack, alongside brief cameos from Regina King and Josh Brolin, is proof the elder Penn still has enough clout to call in a favor.)
It’s not hard to find critics with positive things to say about Flag Day. The Guardian called it “well-made,” while Variety hailed it as “one of Penn’s best.” But the film found a harsher reception at Sunday night’s press screening, where online critics were less inclined to forgive the movie’s rockier moments. They didn’t quite boo, but they definitely made their displeasure clear. Those in attendance reported “jeers and cackles” throughout. Afterward, the Playlist’s Gregory Ellwood deemed Flag Day “comically bad,” and Little White Lies’ Hannah Strong proclaimed it “a pile of shit.”
Over in the official premiere screening, things were more polite. Penn was granted a full-scale movie-star entrance, with the crowd at the Lumiere Theater standing in applause. Here, Flag Day was respectfully received: The audience treated the film’s dramatic scenes with appropriate deference, and when they laughed, it was at actual comedy beats. After the credits rolled, Penn & Co. were treated to a four-minute standing ovation, which seems to be the baseline for a Cannes premiere. The film’s press conference on Sunday was equally courteous, as Penn was lobbed softballs about parenting, humanitarian work, and the Trump administration’s response to COVID, the latter of which earned him a fresh wave of positive press.
When the film leaves the hothouse atmosphere of the Croisette, I expect these outsize reactions will settle, and consensus will be that Penn has made a fine, forgettable movie, perfectly suited for its mid-August release date. Still, with two years’ worth of films to choose from, how did Flag Day of all movies nab a coveted competition slot? The Cannes-savvier journalists here say that it got in simply because Penn’s a big American movie star. And as another man born on Flag Day once said, when you’re a star, they let you do it.
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