Film Review: The Last Movie Star

Sentimental in an emotionally authentic way, this semiautobiographical sum-up of Burt Reynolds' storied career is a gently heartbreaking reflection on bad decisions, lost love and late-life revelations.
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What The Shootist (1976) was to John Wayne, The Last Movie Star is to Burt Reynolds, only more so: The Duke's final movie was the summation of the 19th-century cowpoke the real-life Wayne never was, while writer-director Adam Rifkin's new paean to the twinkle-eyed, self-consciously swaggering top box office star from 1978 to 1982—with the good-ol'-boy action-comedies Smokey and the Bandit and its sequel (1977 and 1980), Hooper (1978) and The Cannonball Run (1981), plus the football comedy Semi-Tough (1977), following Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974) and others—hews closely to Reynolds' own life. It's probably not the 82-year-old star's last movie—the comedy Defining Moments is in postproduction—but whatever coda is to come, this vehicle is his achingly real goodbye to his fans, and perhaps his final chance to comment on having been a signature star of Hollywood, and now someone just trying to hang on to whatever he has left.

Saddled with a generic and arguable title (not that the original, Dog Years, under which it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017, was any better or more specific), The Last Movie Star opens with a snippet from a 1970s David Frost TV interview with Reynolds, tweaked to introduce him as superstar Vic Edwards. And then we see Vic today, in a veterinarian's office, flanked in the waiting room by two young women, oblivious to him, glued to their phones. The vet's list of ailments afflicting Vic's aged dog becomes a darkly comic foreboding of what's in store for the old man. From this scene forward, the frail but handsome Reynolds—walking with a cane as in real life, living in an expensive house but having to watch his money as in real life—creates a carefully calibrated performance that grounds this nostalgic comedy-drama and demands your attention.

Spurred by his friend Sonny (Chevy Chase), Tennessee native Vic agrees to accept a lifetime-achievement award from the International Nashville Film Festival—which he belatedly discovers is not the tonier Nashville International Film Festival. Promised first-class accommodations, Vic finds himself flying coach, being picked up in a rattletrap rather than a limo and ensconced in a cheap motel near the interstate. The festival takes place in co-organizer Doug McDougal's (Clark Duke) bar, on a backroom home-movie screen. His handler, Doug's sister Lil (Ariel Winter), is a belligerent bit of Tennessee trash, heavily tattooed and skimpily dressed in what seems the actress' attempt to begin distancing herself from the schlumpy college nerd she plays on the long-running sitcom "Modern Family."

Lil has never heard of Vic, though the festival-goers revere the former college football player/stuntman/star, a career progression echoing that of the real-life Reynolds. But the outpouring of fan affection does little to soothe the humiliations, and Vic cuts short the visit to head home. As Lil, who needs the work, drives him to the airport, he has her make an impromptu detour to Knoxville, where he grew up. There he confronts his past, his appeal still potent among an older generation and no one else. Interspersed throughout are interludes where Vic appears in scenes from Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit—or, I guess, Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit-type movies starring Vic in this alternate universe—conversing with and sometimes confronting his younger selves.

Even without the semiautobiographical components, The Last Movie Star is a heartbreaking examination of regret for bad decisions, for hubris, and for the very human confusion over what the hell happened and what does it all mean. It can be sentimental, but its sentimentality comes from emotional authenticity and not insincere manipulation. You have no doubt that despite surface deviations from Reynolds' real life, Vic's thoughts and feelings are both real and of life. The outsized dimensions are different than for most of us, but that just puts in stark relief what could be true for any of us.

As his foil, Winter commits beautifully, unafraid to portray a shallow, awful person whose humanity begins to come out with a terrific, ruefully comic speech about her depression and anxiety meds—followed by a pause and a killer line by Reynolds. Elsewhere, comedy derived from Vic's age and his obliviousness to social media may be obvious but nonetheless real for that; my octogenarian father has no more idea than Vic what a hashtag is. The joke isn't on Vic but on a young person's clueless though not malicious lack of understanding and empathy—harkening to Vic's own cluelessness of a different sort when he himself was younger. If that doesn't resonate in one's own life, well, see "hubris" above.

One extra treat: Lil's instantly recognizable artwork is that of the literary-horror author and painter Clive Barker, credited at the end. It's amazing stuff, and having The Last Movie Star preserve and showcase it is a minor coup.

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