You're Alan Arkin, one of the most respected veteran actors alive, and you've chosen to do two low-budget independent films about extended family. One is by an esteemed, literary screenwriter whose short-story adaptations for PBS' "American Playhouse" include such classics as "Who Am I This Time?" and with whom you'd visited the same characters in the Emmy Award-winning adaptation A Matter of Principle. The other is a first feature by a husband-wife directing team whose claim to fame is the MTV series The Cutting Edge--in 1983--plus music-videos. Now guess which one gets you Oscar-nominated?
It just goes to show you never know, what with Little Miss Sunshine gathering award after award, and Raising Flagg pretty much just gathering dust. Shot in and around St. Helens and Portland, Oregon, in 2006, and released in Corvallis, Oregon, that November before getting some regional playdates beginning Feb. 2, 2007, this comedy-drama about a cantankerous coot and a small-town feud has some fine moments for Alan Arkin and his ex-wife Barbara Dana, but its bloated inconsequentiality is simply head-shaking.
Arkin and then-wife Dana created the roles of rural Flagg and Ada Purdy in A Matter of Principle, a 1984 "American Playhouse" adaptation of the story by John D. Weaver. Late the following decade, Weaver's agent sent director Neal Miller a collection of additional short stories, including one, "Don't You Cry for Me," whose lead characters were highly similar. By the time Miller was able to begin developing it as a feature, it was 2002; by then, the Arkins' 35-year marriage had dissolved, yet both actors insisted on reprising their roles.
Those two are terrific in what turned out to be a less-than-stellar script with a very respectable cast. Arkin, who can and has taken one-note roles and, admirably, made them fully fleshed-out creations of shallow people, so becomes the cranky Flagg that you forget it's Alan Arkin. Think that's not tough? When was the last time Robert De Niro wasn't playing "Robert De Niro"? Yet the character himself is so bossy, boorish and opinionated, so quick to explode and a sore loser to boot, that when he spends most of the movie depressed and in bed, melodramatically announcing that he's dying and wants his grown children to gather 'round, it's all just childish and petulant. Given that the town boycotts both handyman Flagg and egg-farmer Ada after Flagg wins a minor lawsuit against an old friend--deliberately trying to make them destitute--any charm that the picaresque locals might have had is long gone.
Longtime character actor and acting teacher Austin Pendleton plays the general-store owner who's grown up with Flagg, and though this story's feud is, from all indications, the latest of several decades' worth and one of mutual blow-off-steam affection, that leavening, quasi-familial worth isn't there. And when the five grown Purdy kids eventually all come home to join the still-at-home teen to dutifully say goodbye and knowingly roll their eyes, the movie starts swirling the drain until the sink gets stopped up. There is such a surplus of characters that son Travis (Daniel Quinn) literally just sits around the kitchen table drinking coffee or beer and reading the paper for a lot of his screen time.
Richard Kind and Clifton James shine in small roles. Glenne Headly and Lauren Holly schlepped to Oregon for this as well. Matthew Arkin is Alan's second son, by his first wife. Hopefully they all got some antiquing or sightseeing in, so that the trip wasn't a total waste.