Vet­er­ans’ story told with wit, emo­tion

Chicago Sun-Times - - MOVIES - BY RICHARD ROEPER Movie Colum­nist Email: rroeper@sun­ Twit­ter: @ richardroeper

Don’t look now, but we’re at a point on the Google Cal­en­dar where 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 where 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 the tragic losses of the past, and lean­ing on one an­other in the af­ter- math 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 bot­tomshelf pre­scrip­tion glasses and his sad- sack mus­tache and his unas­sum­ing de­meanor, Doc is such an in­vis­i­ble per­son­al­ity his old Marine Corps buddy Sal 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 ( Lau­rence Fish­burne), a for­mer party an­i­mal now a hap­pily mar- ried fam­ily man, bor­na­gain 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.

Much of “Last Flag Fly­ing” con­sists of the three old friends talk­ing, laugh­ing, rem­i­nisc­ing, bust­ing each other’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 be­tween Fish­burne and 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” 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.

Steve Carell ( from front), Bryan Cranston and Lau­rence Fish­burne star in “Last Flag Fly­ing.” | AMA­ZON STU­DIOS/ LION­S­GATE

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