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WONDER

Producer: Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writer: Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne
Stars: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Mandy Patinkin, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Bryce Gheisar, Daveed Diggs, Ali Liebert, Sonia Braga, Millie Davis, Elle McKinnon, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, Emma Tremblay and James Hughes
Studio: Lionsgate

C

Stephen Chbosky enjoyed success with his filmization of his own quirky novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” He stumbles, however, with this follow-up effort, an adaptation of another writer’s book. “Wonder” (not to be confused with Todd Haynes’ marvelous “Wonderstruck”) is a tale of a young boy with a facial disfigurement that tugs at the heartstrings so insistently that you might well leave it feeling assaulted rather than uplifted.

The pint-sized protagonist is Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a smart ten-year-old born with a congenital facial deformity that multiple surgeries haven’t entirely resolved. He’s been homeschooled until now by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), but she feels it’s now time for him to leave the nest and take classes at a regular school, Beecher Prep, despite the reservations of his loving dad Nate (Owen Wilson). Much of the film centers on the ups and downs he experiences there—the support he’s shown by the headmaster Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) and teachers Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and Ms. Petosa (Ali Liebert), and the taunts he must endure from bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and his band of followers.

Tremblay, the young actor who was so strong in “Room,” makes Auggie a fully sympathetic kid, both at home and in school. You’ll certainly be appalled by the treatment he receives from Julian and his confederates, and happy when he finds a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe, who played Matt Damon’s son in the unfortunate “Suburbicon”), whom he helps with science homework and plays video games with. But even in its earliest stages, the bullying business is presented in an overly “afterschool special” sort of way (with Gheisar overdoing his pint-sized Eddie Haskell routine), and by the time Julian’s parents show up for a excuse-making session with Tushman, with Crystal Lowe descending to Cruella de Vil level as his snooty mother, the treatment has descended to the level of sheer caricature.

But the story isn’t simply about Auggie’s eventual embrace by his fellow students—achieved in a rah-rah finale at commencement that couldn’t be more manipulative. It’s also about the people around him—first his genial, gregarious dad and Isabel, who’s put off finishing her master’s thesis while raising her son and now returns to it, her triumph in the end complementing Auggie’s.

And it’s about Jack, whose back story is treated as a conjoined subplot to Auggie’s. He wants to fit in as well, and in trying to do so says something he later realizes he shouldn’t have. It causes a rift with Auggie that threatens not only their friendship but Auggie’s belief that he can trust anyone. Naturally this crisis will be overcome by the end, in a way that seems pretty glib even by tearjerker standards.

Another largely separate chapter focuses on Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who has always played second fiddle to her brother (except for her supportive grandma, played in a flashback by Sonia Braga). Her return to school for the new year finds her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) much changed, and shunning her for a new crowd. Miranda will get a sub-chapter of her own explaining her change of attitude, but their rift, like Auggie and Jack’s, will be resolved by the close as well, by a decision on Miranda’s part that—to be honest—is meant to be a gesture of ultimate friendship but could easily have become the source of massive humiliation instead. Happily, this subsection of the movie also involves Via finding a sweet, compatible boyfriend (Nadji Jeter) in the process.

As if all this weren’t enough to send the schmaltz meter into overdrive, Chbosky resorts to one of the oldest, moldiest cards in the pack—the canine reaction shot. The Pullmans have an elderly pet, to which the director cuts periodically to elicit another aw! from the audience. Not only that: he takes the cliché to its ultimate point. Precisely what that is won’t be revealed here, but for reference one might want to consult what Wilson has already played out on the screen, in “Marley & Me.” It’s pretty shameless—and all the more so in that it’s utterly gratuitous.

Still, as far as tearjerkers of this kind are concerned, “Wonder” is a class act. Tremblay is as outstanding as he was in “Room,” while Roberts brings her considerable likableness to her role and Wilson’s goofiness is a pleasant complement to it. Jupe is as engaging here as he was in “Suburbicon” (one of the few good things in that clunker); Vidovic, Russell and Jeter makes a good trio; and Patinkin underplays (though, as usual, his underplaying is barely distinguishable from overplaying). The picture is also technically polished, with solid production design (Kalina Ivanov) and cinematography (Don Burgess), though the editing (Mark Livolsi) might have shaved a bit off the nearly two-hour running-time and Marcelo Zarvos’ score could have been more subtle.

Still, if this sort of thing is your cup of tea, “Wonder” is a superior example of it. Just be forewarned that it’s been brewed with lots and lots of sugar.

LAST FLAG FLYING

Producer: Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater and John Sloss
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Q. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vasquez, Cicely Tyson,Deanna Reed-Foster, Graham Wolfe, Jeff Monahan, Samuel Davis and Kate Easton
Studio: Lionsgate/Amazon Studios

C

Director Richard Linklater has made conventional movies before, but none quite so anonymous as “Last Flag Flying,” a follow-up of sorts to Hal Ashby’s much-lauded 1973 “The Last Detail.” Like that film, it’s based upon a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater). The book was a direct sequel to “Detail,” featuring the same three characters more than three decades later. The script changes their names, perhaps in an effort to avoid direct comparisons, which are bound to be invidious. But the alteration fails to disguise how inferior this well-meaning but pedestrian picture is to its now-unacknowledged predecessor.

That’s rather surprising since in many respects Linklater would seem a perfect choice to take up Ashby’s mantle. Like the older director, he favors a direct, unostentatious, naturalistic style that can come off as ragged but works when the material is honest. (The homely look of the picture—shot by Shane F. Kelly, with a production design by Bruce Curtis, follows that tendency as well.) Too often here, though, things ring dramatically false, and what is meant to be deeply moving is bathetic instead.

The set-up is a simple one. In 2003 meek Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell)—the successor to Meadows, the character Randy Quaid played in “Detail,” the young guy being transported to the naval prison in Portsmouth—finds his way to the run-down Norfolk, Virginia bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a cynical, sarcastic type who’s the descendent of Jack Nicholson’s Billy Buddusky. Though they haven’t seen one another in decades, Larry, or “Doc” as Sal calls him, asks Sal, who served with him in Vietnam, to accompany him to Dover Air Force Base where he’s to claim the body of his son Larry Jr., a Marine killed in Iraq and scheduled to be buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Not only does Sal agree, but together they travel to a nearby Baptist church to recruit the third member of their old crew, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne)—erstwhile Mulhall—in the mission. Mueller, who was known during his time in the service as “Mauler,” is now a pastor, and reluctant to go along until his wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster) insists: the fact that Larry also recently lost his wife to cancer only adds to his pathetic quality.

So the trio set off for Dover, where they meet Larry Jr.’s best friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) and learn the true circumstances of the boy’s death—which are a bit different from the tale of valiant combat offered by attending officer Col. Willits (Yul Vazquez). The news disturbs Doc, and he decides, against Willits’ advice, to transport his son’s coffin back to Portsmouth for a civilian burial. And of course he’ll be accompanied by Sal, Richard and Washington.

So in essence this is a road movie, and an extremely talky one at that. (Actually, it could have been substantially shortened if Sal weren’t constantly introducing a new colloquy with one of the other characters by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” and then doing so. It’s a crutch so frequently resorted to in order to raise a new subject or recollection that you grow very tired of it; too bad editor Sandra Adair was unable to finesse the transitions better.)

That’s especially the case because Cranston offers what is essentially a one-note performance as Nealon. There’s very little shading to his turn, which comes off as particularly weak when compared to Nicholson in “Detail.” Carell, following his extrovert imitation of tennis provocateur Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes,” goes the opposite route here, playing Shepherd as such a shy, recessive guy that he practically disappears. Fishburne exudes his usual stabilizing force, but his character is a pretty pallid one.

And what, ultimately, is “Last Flag Flying” about? It’s about these three old comrades-in-arms finally coming to terms with an episode from their past—involving a recreational use of drugs that made it impossible for them to alleviate the pain of a wounded friend—about which they’ve all felt guilt over the years. That leads to one of the various impromptu detours they undertake during their trip—a visit to the frail mother of their long-dead buddy, played affectingly by Cicely Tyson. There’s an ironic conclusion to the visit in that the story they tell her isn’t unlike what Col. Willits had told Shepherd about the death of his son—both are basically well-intended fabrications. But the screenplay doesn’t do much with the comparison.

That’s surprising, though, since otherwise the script goes pretty consistently for the obvious. The result, despite the starriness of the cast and the presence of Linklater, is an undoubtedly sincere but mediocre paean to military comradeship.