Greetings again from the darkness. Life is full of choices, however sometimes destiny takes charge and there’s little we can do about it. One’s parents are the most obvious and crucial example. We don’t choose our parents and yet their impact on our lives is unavoidable. Jennifer Vogel’s book, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, has been adapted for the screen by the FORD V FERRARI screenwriting brothers, Jez Butterworth and John–Henry Butterworth. The film is directed by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, who also co-stars.
Told through the eyes of Jennifer (played here by Sean Penn’s daughter Dylan Penn, a lookalike of her mother Robin Wright), this is the “based on a true story” of John Vogel, but also the story of Jennifer, who managed to overcome challenges that stemmed from her far-from-ideal childhood. Jennifer’s mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is an alcoholic and has a tumultuous marriage to John, a con man who constantly spews bombast and fabrications (aka lies) as he tries to scam the system and impress his family with his big plans (that go nowhere).
Since the film opens with a law enforcement standoff, and with Jennifer being interviewed by a Federal Marshal (Oscar winner Regina King), we know how John’s saga concludes, and most of the movie is spent in Jennifer’s memories to paint the picture of her dad and her life. Some of these are “flashes” of moments, while others are extended segments where we really get a feel for the father that cluttered a daughter’s mind and life. It’s tough to watch 105 minutes of a guy with little redeeming value.
This is not the place to detail what we see, but it’s at times disturbing to see the memories of a father who doesn’t so much slip in and out of the lives of Jennifer, younger brother Nick (played by Sean’s son Hopper Jack Penn), and mom Patty, as he appears and vanishes in proverbial explosions akin to the Wicked Witch of the West. Given that her mom is equally inept at parenting, high school Jennifer seems destined to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Covering a period from 1975 through 1992, we see Jennifer as a young kid, and then Ms. Penn takes over the role in high school. She is also our narrator, some of which is overwrought for a film that mostly strives to stay grounded in family dynamics, as Jennifer works to overcome. In addition to the previously mentioned appearance by Ms. King, there are also brief yet effective turns by Josh Brolin (as John’s brother Uncle Beck), Dale Dickey (as John’s crusty mother), Norbert Leo Butz (as Patty’s sleazy boyfriend), and Eddie Marsan (near the film’s end).
In addition to overuse of voiceover, director Penn includes a few too many song/musical interludes. Some of these songs are excellent (Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard), but they feel a bit heavy-handed and forced into the film. In fact, melodrama is chosen over nuance on multiple occasions, but when the film is good, it’s very good. The best scenes are between father and daughter, Sean and Dylan, the latter of which shows flashes of incredible depth. We look forward to more of her work. As for Sean, can you name another actor whose natural look better exemplifies a guy who has had the snot kicked out of him by life (even if he’s made his own bed)? He portrays John Vogel as a con man who believes achieving the American Dream is something he’s owed, not something to earn. His love of Chopin is not enough to excuse his horrific parenting, scamming, or felonious behavior. There are various forms of freedom, and Jennifer must discover freedom from someone who has prevented you from being her true self.
Opens in select theaters on August 20, 2021