“Last Flag Flying” is a solidly entertaining road film carried above all by the talent and chemistry of its cast.

Like other Richard Linklater-penned and directed films, it balances moving drama with just the right amount of humor to keep things engaging.

It’s a bit too long, and as road films sometimes do it loses a bit of its focus and impact as it veers off into episodic misadventures meant to endear audiences to the characters.

But for the most part it works. Once audiences reach the end of the road with those characters, they’ll most likely want that road to stretch just a little further.

What’s it about?

Set in 2003, “Last Flag Flying” focuses on Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a Navy veteran who sets out to reunite with two Marine buddies he served with in Vietnam, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne).

In the decades since Doc has seen them, Sal and Mueller took very divergent paths – one now a boozed-up, broken-down bar owner, the other a happily-married church pastor. But once he has them both in the same room, Doc asks his one-time best friends to help him with a heartbreaking task: to help him bury his own son, Larry Jr., also a Marine, who was killed while serving in Iraq.

Not long into the trip, the trio receive information that casts doubt on the story the government told Doc about how his son died. The revelations that follow send the journey in a different direction entirely, and provide the three very different men bonded by war and a shared checkered past a chance to reconcile with each other and with ghosts that have haunted them since their wartime days.

Compelling ensemble

With a synopsis like that, it may be difficult to picture “Last Flag Flying” as having a great deal of humor, but it really does. The script by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (whose novel the film is loosely based upon) is filled with Grumpy-Old-Men style banter and situations which develop out of the trio’s vastly disparate personalities.

Of the three roles, Cranston’s is the showiest – his Sal a salty, bawdy, unapologetic sort who drinks, smokes and swears too much, all with a sort of resigned nihilistic glee. Naturally, he clashes often with Fishburne’s Mueller, a reformed hellraiser who sees in Sal the undignified, unrestrained parts of himself he’s worked so hard to leave behind along with the war.

But outshining both performances is that of Carell, whose soft-spoken, earnest Doc is the film’s beating, hurting heart. It’s a charming, genuine performance that proves once again audiences have yet to see Carell’s full range as a dramatic performer. Just when you think he can’t possibly surprise you again with an outside-the-box role or film turn, he provides another one to make you say “Wow, that was good!”

Pacing issues

One challenge the cast and writing in “Last Flag Flying” doesn’t entirely overcome is just how to keep its narrative momentum steady throughout its 124-minute running time. Road pictures as a rule face this issue, as the “road” takes the characters in unexpected directions leading to plot beats that have to resolve themselves before the main narrative can get back on track.

To be fair, all those stops along the way do serve clear functions. They allow for Doc, Sal, and Mueller to organically resolve the unfinished business between them as well as provide for many of the film’s funniest moments.

Arguably, however, some of those narrative beats, particularly in the film’s second act, could have been condensed or omitted entirely while still achieving the same overall effect.

Worth seeing?

All that said, “Last Flag Flying” is certainly worth seeing at some point to enjoy the stellar work of its cast.

It can be enjoyed just as well at home as it might be at the movies – it is, after all, a quieter, more intimate film.

But fans of Linklater and of the cast shouldn’t hesitate if they’re looking for a movie to see over the Thanksgiving holiday and it’s showing at their neighborhood theater.

Give these old guys a chance. They’ll win you over.

Last Flag Flying

Starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez and Cicely Tyson. Directed by Richard Linklater.
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references.