Judge Jim Thomas has his own solution for sheep with bladder control issues: mutton.
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the avenue of redemption is awash in sheep piss.
I've rewritten this opening statement about ten times now. First there was the "there's only seven basic plots" business, which morphed into the "It's like very family reconciliation movie you've ever seen, only different" approach, then there was the "For every man, there's one point in your life when all of a sudden, you're stuck by how similar you are to your father; the real question is whether that moment makes you proud or scares the shit out of you" riff. Crap, I even worked off of a T-shirt my wife got me for Christmas that says "The ones who really drive me crazy are my family!" They all kind of worked, but all the pieces never quite fell into place.
And then it came to me—that's the problem with this movie. There is a lot of good stuff in here, but despite solid acting throughout, the pieces just don't quite hold together.
Facts of the Case
Raising Flagg is a comedy-drama about rural handyman Flagg Purdy (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). He ekes out a living doing odd jobs for his neighbors while his wife Ada (Barbara Dana) sells organic chicken eggs at the local store. Flagg is easily overwhelmed by life's little annoyances, blustering about at any inconvenience or insult, real or imagined; only Ada can look past his crusty exterior to the tender and vulnerable side of the father of their six children.
After waking to the unexpected sight of a group of sheep relieving themselves near his well, Flagg ends up suing his best friend Gus (Austin Pendleton, A Beautiful Mind)—the owner of said sheep. When an unexpected legal loophole results in Flagg winning his case, he finds himself ostracized by the small community. Falling into a funk, he takes an odd feeling in his leg as a sign that he is about to die. He takes to his bed and insists that Ada call home the rest of the family so that he can make his peace with his children: Ann Marie Purdy (Glenne Headly, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) has a popular radio talk show—"Ann Marie, no PhD, just common sense, Purdy"—but hasn't spoken to her demanding father since she eloped with a used car salesman when she was seventeen. Rachel (Lauren Holly, Down Periscope) bills herself as "the spiritual real estate agent" of the community. Eldon (Matthew Arkin, Margot at the Wedding) is a minister who travels the countryside on a BMW motorcycle but rarely visits his agnostic father. Travis (Daniel Quinn, Wild at Heart), the brooding second son, leads a bohemian lifestyle selling composting worms. Linette (Dawn Maxey) is the one daughter who seems worried about her father. Jenny Purdy (Stephanie Lemelin), still in high school, is counting the days until graduation and freedom.
As the clan descends on Flagg's supposed deathbed, he's forced to come to terms with who he is and just how much the people in his life mean to him.
Let's get this out of the way first: There's nothing particularly original about the plot—we've seen it time and time again, some good, some bad. The true test is how well the plot is handled.
Alan Arkin is a freaking amazing talent. Forget Little Miss Sunshine; go watch The In-Laws and Wait Until Dark back to back. Your brain will explode convincing yourself that it's the same guy. In this movie, Arkin does a good job, but it's not a role that really breaks any new ground for him. Still, he turns in a solid performance. Most actors would portray the role in such a way that we can see beneath Flagg's gruff exterior from the beginning. Arkin doesn't. From the moment we lay eyes on him, he's cantankerous, pig-headed, callous, and, on occasion, downright mean. But we still like him—in large part because no matter what he does, his wife Ada is always supporting him, always affirming the good man that lies beneath the surface. Barbara Dana (who was married to Arkin for a time) does such a good job that we just accept it. Dana's got the rare gift of being able to speak volumes with just a tilt of her head that serves the character well; her reactions can hold a scene together from the background. Later in the movie, as his barriers break down, we don't see Flagg's warmth—we see his fear that he may be just like his own father. It's a nice progression that works well.
Really, all the performances are solid. The Purdy children are not particularly well-developed, but the cast does a great job with what they have; when the family is together, their ease with one another just feels like a real family. There are all sorts of nice little touches, such as the manner in which the children bolt like spooked cockroaches at the arrival of the crass—even by this family's standards—Aunt Edith. Even the minor roles are well served with the likes of Richard Kind (Spin City) and Clifton James (Live and Let Die).
A strong point is that the film goes to great lengths to avoid having a procession of tedious bedside discussions with Flagg and he family—we get a few, mind you, but director and co-writer Neal Miller goes out of his way to spread them out and to shoot each one differently. Everyone involved clearly cares deeply about the project.
Video is about what you'd expect from an independent release. Images are clear, with a little bit of grain; the commentary notes that the movie was shot on digital video. So not surprisingly, color bleeding and compression artifacts are not issues. Landscapes are a touch washed out, but that's an Oregon winter for you. The sound is just a basic stereo track—no Dolby Digital, mind you—but again, it's not like we have AH-64 Apaches launching air-to-ground missiles into the pumphouse, exploding sheep, or people on fire running down the street, punching themselves in the head trying to put out the flames. You'll have to wait for the return of 24 next January (*sniff*) for that. The sound is clear and everyone can be understood, and that's all a movie like this really needs.
The commentary track features Director/co-writer Neal Miller, along with Daniel Quinn, who plays Travis Purdy. It drags at times, but the two have a good rapport, and they bring in all sorts of fun little details, particularly how Miller was at the home of associate producer Hardy James discussing casting when James' father stopped by—Clifton James (Live and Let Die). They immediately cast him as Ed McIvor, a small but pivotal part.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's just too much going on here. Too many characters, too many plot points. You've got Flagg reconciling with his six children, the family reconnecting with each other, Flagg reconciling with Gus, Flagg's own relationship with his long-dead father. Given that it takes a while to set up the basic plot and character dynamics, there's really just over an hour to establish the children's characters, and to develop and resolve all of these familial conflicts; nothing gets enough development to make the film's resolution seem like a natural, organic result of all of the characters' development. A long-ago conflict between Ann Marie and Rachel is brought up, discussed, and resolved in just under a minute. Flagg's sudden decision that he's about to die comes from out of the blue, and the resolution seems a little too easy as well, with Ada saying "This has gone on long enough," and taking steps to give Flagg a metaphorical kick in the ass. Oddly, the resolution plays like an episode of House; there's a lot of wasted motion trying to figure out what's wrong with Flagg, then one character makes an idle comment that clues Ada in on what's really wrong. To her credit, Barbara Dana damn near makes it work; it would be a fun exercise to see this film re-edited with Ada as the main character.
The only thing that seems a flat-out misstep is Gus' conversation with Ada at a dance. We learn that the two were sweethearts in school, but Ada ultimately chose Flagg over Gus, and that Flagg just might be worried that Gus still pines for Ada. By the time that little chunk of information turns up, it's so late in the proceedings that it's hard to factor it in with all of the other dynamics—just one more plot point shoehorned into a short running time. There's just so much going on that at times it's hard to keep track of things—even the names of Flagg's children.
This disc has a lot going for it, and I can give it a recommendation solely on the basis of the lead performances. But waaaay too much is packed into a fairly brief movie. While you end the movie glad that Flagg managed to get things back on track, once you start thinking about the progression, you find yourself lost in a jungle of details, unable to determine which ones are really important.
The defendant is guilty of overloading a promising plot. Due to the strong performances, though, the court hereby suspends the sentence, but the defendants are duly warned that further transgressions will result in their being locked up with a herd of incontinent sheep.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
• Director's Commentary
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