Sean Penn … he’s still got it. He may have exasperated audiences with The Last Face, his previous directorial outing at Cannes, an earnest Western-aid-saviour drama that pretty much got him booed off the red carpet. But as an actor he’s still got the chops: a fierce masculine presence, a buzzard-like watchfulness always liable to break into a scornful grimace or lethal grin. His seductive address to the camera is almost unrivalled. Moreover, as a director, he knows how to bring the horsepower. And so it proves in this very watchable and well-made family drama.
Penn directs and stars as notorious criminal, swindler and counterfeiter John Vogel, wanted in the 90s by the FBI for forging thousands of $100 bills from a Minnesota copy shop. His story was told in the memoir Flim Flam Man: A True Family History, by his daughter, the author and journalist Jennifer Vogel. He was a compulsively exuberant and charming man that she adored, but he broke her heart by running out on the family, by spinning endless lies, and finally by being unable to accept the redemptive love that she desperately offered him, a slippery sociopath to the last.
Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean, plays Jennifer and Penn plays the toxic rogue Vogel himself. He is an appalling mix of Ryan O’Neal’s character in Paper Moon from 1973, Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with a touch of the failed office-furniture supply executive who Penn played in Niels Miller’s 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. He’s a wheedling huckster who is always talking earnestly about the portfolio of business opportunities that he is curating. He also loves showing off to his family – and of course the kids are delighted at his crazy antics. But having encouraged the children to hero-worship him, John will disappear overnight when the people he owes money to become too oppressive.
The film shows that his entry-level crime was the one which planted the seed of emotional destruction: setting up supposedly workable businesses like burger joints and then torching them for the insurance. The fledgling grifter John Vogel learned that the thing to do with a difficult situation was burn it all down and get out of there; in fact, any situation is tolerable only because he knows it’s all going to go up in smoke.
Dylan Penn does well in the role of Jennifer, a young woman who inherited almost all of her dad’s destructive habits, like drink and drugs, but was saved by her interest in journalism, particularly investigative journalism. And of course, John himself is her story of a lifetime: the smirkingly unrepentant conman who believes his own lies, and – as his mother believes – has the sentimental entitlement of someone born on flag day. We see Penn capering around in red-white-and-blue for his birthday, and behaving as if it is everyone’s patriotic duty to give him a break.
The most telling moment comes when Jennifer catches him red-handed, pretending to be talking to a car dealer on the phone, supposedly to buy her a Jaguar, the promise of this non-existent car being an emotional hold over her. While he is talking to this imaginary person, Jennifer holds the disconnected phone lead up in his face; John stares at it for a moment and then mutters into the mouthpiece: “I’ll call you back…”
There are some pretty broad emotional strokes here and maybe a fair bit of grandstanding. But it’s made with some style.
•Flag Day screened on 10 July at the Cannes film festival, and is released on 20 August in the US.