If you took three middle-aged war veterans and turned their lives into an earnest, pious, watchable, but naggingly inauthentic TV dramedy, the result might look something like Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying.” The movie is adapted from a novel by Daryl Ponicsan, who wrote the book “The Last Detail” was based on, and it’s a kind of spiritual sequel that mirrors the abstract outline of that celebrated 1973 film: a trio of military men thrown together on a scattershot road odyssey. In this case, though, the setting is December 2003, and the three men are old comrades (two Marines, one Navy), all of whom served together in Vietnam.
Sal (Bryan Cranston), craggy and bearded in a black leather jacket, with a leering insult for every occasion, is the upstart of the group: an ebullient, foul-mouthed drinker who owns and runs a dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Burly, gray-haired Richard (Laurence Fishburne) is the reformed one, a courtly, sanctimonious, and long-married reverend who walks with a cane and never takes off his religious collar, and who has done everything in his power to repress the man he once was — a loose cannon of a soldier known as “Mueller the Mauler.” (The nickname was given to him not for his combat skills, but for his sexual enthusiasm in whorehouses.)
Finally, there’s Larry (Steve Carell), known as Doc, a mild, slump-shouldered Navy clerk who’s got good reason to be down in the dumps: He lost his wife to breast cancer, and his son, a Marine, was recently killed in Baghdad. Doc now has to bury him, and enlists his two old military colleagues to assist him in the dreaded task. The three haven’t spoken to each other since the war, and if that sounds like that other dreaded thing, a plot device…well, that’s just what it is. The movie is full of them.
The set-up of “Last Flag Flying” seems promising on the surface, especially for a director like Linklater, who in “Before Sunrise” and its two…