Burt Reynolds was once the most successful actor in the world, riding his "good ol' boy" crash course car pictures like Smokey and the Bandit to box office domination. He's an icon of old school masculinity – that mustache and hairy chest sexual staples of a bygone era, before ironic facial hair and "manscaping" became all the rage – driving women wild with his high-pitched laugh and killer smile. He didn't look like a movie star, but he just had that something you can't teach in any acting class (though one look at Deliverance or Boogie Nights tells you the man had game in the performance department as well). Yet Burt rode that Southern charm – along with roommate/stunt double/director Hal Needham – all the way to the top, minting a sort of superstar we just don't see anymore. He was the next-door neighbor who you didn't leave your girlfriend alone with even to get a glass of beer, because he could probably charm her pants right off in that small timeframe alone.
Unfortunately, those days are gone for Ol' Burt, and if The Last Movie Star is any indication, he knows it as well. Hell, at eighty-two years of age, any human being will know that their glorious times have pretty much come to a close. As a result, Adam Rifkin's (Psycho Cop 2; Detroit Rock City) heartfelt yet somewhat ineptly made road comedy is both a love letter to the legend, as well as a metatextual opportunity for Reynolds to confront the man he once was, while simultaneously embracing the literally dying flame he is today. As Vic Edwards – Rifkin's fictionalized, yet all too true screen iteration of the performer – Burt allows his mistakes and regrets to wash over the audience, the intention of the picture somewhat eclipsing its rather glaring flaws. In short, even though The Last Movie Star is a bad movie, for Reynolds’ fans, it's somewhat essential viewing.
The very first few scenes are enough to make one reach for the Kleenex, as Vic takes his trusty, fifteen-year-old pooch to the vet; the poor dog's kidneys failing, eyes clouded with cataracts. There's nothing the doctor can do, and the actor says goodbye to his pup, before driving home and tossing his collar into the pet’s empty bed. On the way, he picks up an invitation to the International Knoxville Film Festival, which has invited him to come and accept the establishment's Lifetime Achievement Award. After talking it over with his good buddy Sonny (Chevy Chase, also essentially playing himself), Vic decides to take a coach flight from California to Tennessee, the land where he grew up. Only, upon arrival, he isn't greeted at the airport by a limo. In its place is a rusty beater driven by Lil (Modern Family's Ariel Winter), the tattooed, nose ring-sporting chauffer sister of IKFF's organizer, Doug McDougal (Clark Duke).
Turns out the McDougal family bar is the sole locale for the film fest – which is run by Doug and his best buddy Shane (Ellar Coltrane) – but that doesn't render attendees’ enthusiasm for Vic or his filmography any less intense. They're utterly thrilled to be in the golden god's presence, wanting to ask a million questions of the faded marquee icon. But Vic's having none of it, and honestly can't understand why anyone would watch his old Westerns and think they were anything but B-Movies. All these adjectives these losers are using to describe his performances just seem so over the top, and Edwards can't take any of it seriously. So, instead of indulging their curiosity, he merely gets drunk on whiskey, insults the whole audience, and then retires to the rat hole motel room they've rented for him, counting the minutes until Lil's supposed to drive him back to the airport.
Though there are some strange, inconsistent choices made in Rifkin's camera set ups – the very basic coverage he shoots the scenes with almost seeming amateurish at times, poor ADR plaguing the wide and reverse angles – there's still some interesting subtext about modern hero worship and cinematic re-evaluation bubbling beneath the surface. Doug and Shane are essentially flesh and blood stand-ins for modern Film Twitter goons, tossing out wholly ridiculous phrases to try and describe movies that were nothing more than big screen paycheck diversions for everyone involved in their creation. Sure, The Last Movie Star is about growing old and looking back on past mistakes, but it also revolves around this strange fetishization others develop for works that were perhaps not properly valued upon their original release. Sadly, Rifkin doesn't really delve into this beyond a superficial level, but it's most definitely there.
Instead, the writer/director opts to craft a corny road movie, where Vic demands that Lil take a detour from the airport, and the two end up touring a ton of sites from his memory – including the house he grew up in and the nursing home where his first wife is slowly rotting away – while the movie star helps the girl get over her piss poor taste in men. Meanwhile, every time Vic falls asleep against the window, he's suddenly transported to scenes from classic Reynolds movies – such as Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance – where he's allowed to shout (via some really awful green screen work) at the characters he played in the past, as if they're the true iterations of himself. It's in these moments that we're seeing Burt Reynolds The Man literally confronting Burt Reynolds The Icon, his legacy overshadowing the fact that he's now nothing more than a hobbled, broke geezer, just like the rest of us will be when we hit eight-two.
It's a neat idea, and there's genuine sadness contained in Reynolds' performance, as we're seeing one of our greatest Hollywood players come to terms with the fact that he's going to die, probably very, very soon. You just wish that somebody other than Rifkin made The Last Movie Star. Because for every good idea, there's a poorly executed companion, usually revolving around Lil's cheating boyfriend Bjorn (Juston Street), or an eye-rolling senior citizen gag. Still, the last act is still going to be heart-wrenching for anyone who grew up loving Burt, as he gives us a sendoff speech that could easily act as his real life final goodbye to fans (complete with one of the actor's trademark fourth wall breaks). So, while The Last Movie Star may not be "good" by any discernible, objective metrics, those who remember marathoning Reynolds' movies on Sunday afternoons will probably still develop a rather large lump in their throats, as we bid adieu to one of the finest presences to ever grace the silver screen.
The Last Movie Star is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD from A24.