The (elderly) Burt Reynolds vehicle The Last Movie Star strikes a note of banality in its first sequence from which it rarely deviates. Wearing a face as stiff as a death mask, Reynolds’s faded action movie star Vic Edwards limps into a vet’s office where he learns that his 15-year-old dog — which has the name Squanto, after one of Vic’s old hits — is on its last legs and needs to be put down. Vic leaves with the empty dog collar, goes to his empty Hollywood home in a sterile gated community, and tosses the collar onto the empty dog bed. The emptiness reverberates. At lunch with another old, faded actor (Chevy Chase), Vic gazes on revealingly dressed young women who don’t return that gaze. The Hollywood legend is now a lonely, broke, dirty old man who’s barely worthy of notice.
Clips of the swarthy, enviably fit young Reynolds on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and various red carpets confirm that he was, indeed, the cat’s pajamas. But now the humiliations come thick and fast. Vic is invited to receive an award from a Nashville film festival that turns out to be amateur hour. He has to stand in a long airport line for a middle seat in coach. His motel overlooks the superhighway. And on and on… Through it all, Vic ponders the women he abandoned and mistakes he made. The writer-director Adam Rifkin has secured clips from Reynold’s movies — Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance most prominently — and digitally inserted the aged Reynolds into them, so that in fantasy sequences Vic can warn his younger self not to take the same dead-end road.
The Last Movie Star has played to enthusiastic audiences at festivals like Toronto — people who haven’t remotely forgotten Reynolds and are eager to reverse the humiliations that he experienced via his alter ego onscreen. And for all my groaning during the film, I couldn’t help being haunted. For crying out loud, this is Burt Reynolds, who defined a breed of arrogant masculinity that somehow didn’t come off — at least to audiences at the time — as ugly chauvinism. Reynolds seemed too good-natured, too in on the joke, to be threatening. We followed him through his romances — to Dinah Shore, Sally Field, and Loni Anderson — and read with morbid fascination about his terrible financial choices. The movie might be self-exploitation, but his mere presence makes it potent.
If the writing were better, we could appreciate Rifkin’s decision to make Vic — like Reynolds, reportedly — an asshole. If only he were a wittier asshole! We might also have warmed up more to Ariel Winter as Lil, the sister of the nerdy Nashville film festival director and Vic’s driver, who has a nose ring and short shorts and is always on her cell screaming at her unfaithful boyfriend. Winter does have a wonderful monologue in which she holds forth for Vic on the medications she takes and has taken for depression and anxiety, along with their host of debilitating side effects. And Rifkin finds his footing in the third act, when they bond in a tony Knoxville hotel while on a visit to Vic’s childhood home. (But making Vic Jewish was a mistake. Reynolds passes about as well as Jessica Chastain and Kevin Costner in Molly’s Game, which is to say not remotely.) A final monologue in which Vic laments his misspent life is corny but bearable.
Absent from the small but appreciative audience in the film’s Nashville festival is someone who might well have had a cameo — the late Nashville Scene critic Jim Ridley. We never met or corresponded but I’ve been reading a collection of his pieces put together by his former editor Steve Haruch called People Only Die of Love in Movies. It will be published in June and you should get it. It’s really good. It makes me sad not just over the loss of Ridley, who died too young, but the diminution in importance of alternative newsweeklies, which have done so much in the last half century to nurture film festivals in small and medium cities all over the country. Ridley might have covered a Vic Edwards — or Burt Reynolds — tribute and done it with love.