Richard Linklater’s newest movie Last Flag Flying is a somber story coated with comedic components that are effective as they are uneven. We follow three middle aged Vietnam vets in 2003 traveling the east coat to bury one the vet’s sons who has been killed in combat. Linklater has a unique eye for resonating time by emphasizing details in the mundane. And just like in Boyhood and Dazed and Confused, the nostalgia and dialog shine in his latest feature.

But even with fantastic performances and a stimulating premise, the movie is often story-laden. It drifts too often in tone and narrative not sure where to land. Nonetheless, Last Flag Flying manages to be an interesting examination of patriotism and grief.

A mild-mannered Steve Carell stars as Doc, a grief-stricken man traveling to bury his son killed in Baghdad. He reunites with two of his old Vietnam comrades, recruiting them to assist with the burial. Bryan Cranston plays the binge drinking, wise cracking Nealon who still acts like he’s in his 20s. Lawrence Fishburne plays the holy Reverend Mueller whose sinful past has been eclipsed by his found spirituality. As the three gentlemen travel, they yack away the old days discussing their life choices, tradition, and loyalty while trying to dodge the government’s involvement in the burial.

The melancholy proposition is a distinctive and affective tool. It’s a road trip flick with a dire undertone. But Linklater approaches the material with an amusing presentation rather than dragging the audience through doom and gloom. And that’s not to say the movie doesn’t dive into grim waters- it certainly gets dark- but it keeps a steady eye on keeping the movie light. It’s much funnier and darker than one might anticipate. And that contradictory notion is one of its biggest faults. It meanders into dark and light subject matter too often, it’s difficult to grasp what it’s exactly trying to say.

The three leads are great if not a bit hammy at times. Cranston gets the most screen time with the liveliest performance. He is a functioning alcoholic who essentially is the id to Doc’s ego. And on the other spectrum is Fishbourne’s God fearing character acting as doc’s super ego. Doc is in the middle with a devil and angel whispering in his ears guiding him through this journey. Fishbourne is great zig zagging his character from the holy man he has become to the foul-mouthed sinner he used to be. And Carell is practically numb, carrying the grief of his deceased son and wife. It’s an affective subdued almost muted performance that shows Carrell has some strong acting chops (although Foxcatcher was a pretty big indicator already).

Last Flag Flying doesn’t reach the heights of other Linklater films, but still manages to be a welcomed entry. While the dialog can be quite impressive with some great existential views, it’s not sure what the point of the movie is. The focus steers to often from talking point to talking point while also trying to be a time capsule of the early 2000s. None of it is as consistent as it should be. Linklater has played with these tropes before with the Before Sunset series but it didn’t feel as overstuffed. The strongest material comes from the notions on patriotism which appears to be its main thrust. What does it mean to be patriotic? Is patriotism an illusion? Who decides who is patriotic enough? It’s an interesting discussion that never get bogged down in political ideology. But even when all its mechanisms don’t work, Last Flag Flying remains captivating with both intellectual and emotional facets.