When you’ve got it, you’ve probably got it forever. What you’ve got might go out of style, and you might be relegated to projects that are beneath your talents, but every once in a while, you might get offered something that will remind everyone that you still got it. For Burt Reynolds, that time is now, and that project is Adam Rifkin’s wonderfully subversive “The Last Movie Star.”
Forty years ago, Burt Reynolds was on top of the world, in the middle of his run as the most popular box office attraction, thanks to his leading role in “Smokey and the Bandit.” Twenty years ago, he was back in the spotlight after a disastrous turn in “Striptease,” thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” Time has not been kind to Reynolds. Today, in his early 80s, he might not be as ruggedly handsome as he was in that infamous Cosmo centerfold, and he hasn’t been the center of a big hit since the first Reagan administration, but he’s still Burt Fucking Reynolds, and Burt Fucking Reynolds can command the screen in a way that fails most modern film stars. He might not be THE LAST Movie Star (that’s probably Tom Cruise) but they really don’t make movie stars like Burt Fucking Reynolds anymore.
Here, Burt plays Vic Edwards, a fictitious version of Burt Reynolds (complete with real film and television clips of the actor in his prime), long out of the spotlight, who has little to do in life but hang out with his friend Sonny (Chevy Chase, who has lost ALL of the charm that once made him a star) watching pretty women in yoga pants do their morning exercises in one of those Retail and Residential places in Los Angels that have become ubiquitous in “upscale” neighborhoods over the past several years. With nothing to do and very few people to do them with, Vic decides to accept an invitation to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Nashville Film Festival, with travel and accommodations paid for. But no Cannes or Venice this festival be. No private planes or limos. No first-class lodgings at the finest five-star hotel in town. Instead, Vic is flown coach and is picked up in Music City by the tattooed, septum-pierced, hot pants wearing Lil (Ariel Winter, doing her best to destroy her image from “Modern Family”), who almost get them both killed on the way to his third-rate motel by the side of the highway as she argues with her boyfriend via text while driving. Eventually, Vic gets taken to the “home” of the film festival: a bar on the edge of town, where he meets his host, Lil’s brother Doug (Clark Duke), who runs the films for his festival from A/V equipment probably borrowed from a local community college.
After a disastrous screening of some of Vic’s movies, and a vapid Q&A, Vic decides to ditch the festival, and talks Lil in to taking a detour in to Knoxville, so he can go on some nostalgia kick through his childhood and young adulthood. And, as these things will happen, the old man and the young woman, stuck together under circumstance and not particularly fond of each other, will find a kind of begrudging truce bordering on friendship.
Storywise, there’s not a whole lot to the film. Stylistically, Rifkin’s direction and Scott Winig’s cinematography are perfunctory and right down the middle. The supporting cast, for the most part, does what supporting casts are meant to do: support the star. None of these are complaints, though. You don’t need a lot of directorial flourish when your job is to point a camera at one of the biggest stars cinema has ever had and let him be himself. But how much of Burt Reynolds is actually in Vic Edwards? It’s hard to tell. One is from Florida after a short childhood stint in Michigan, one is from Tennessee. Both were star college football players who became actors after career-ending injuries. One is Jewish, the other has never been that open about his faith. One has been married twice, the other five times, while both admit to having one true love. If Burt Reynolds is just playing himself, that’s fine and dandy. Many of our greatest actors weren’t Method actors but just constantly playing versions of themselves. If Burt is playing the role of Vic and letting the audience fill in the blanks of what makes the character so iconic, then we are witness to one of the star’s finest acting roles. (Of course, it doesn’t help that Rifkin widely [and wisely] uses footage of Reynolds through his career, from visits on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on David Frost to scenes from the actor’s most iconic works [including Deliverance and Smokey & The Bandit], where Vic interacts on screen with his best known characters.)
That movie, about a former star addressing his lost luster, is well worth your time. But there’s a second, renegade movie happening underneath the surface, one that is a scathing indictment of the movie geek film culture that has permeated modern culture. A culture where people don’t ask questions of actors out of a sense of genuine curiosity but out of some pathetic need to show off how much they know about you and your work. (Recently, I attended the first show of The Decemberists’ new tour, where I had bought a VIP package which included a short pre-show mini-show and a Q&A with the members of the band. Now, I love The Decemberists. I have all their albums and EP and B-sides and side projects. I’ve seen them live multiple times. I consider myself a fairly astute fan of their work. So when some asshat wasted his question to lead singer and main songwriter Colin Meloy about whether he was ever going to write a rock opera based on some legendary unrecorded song Meloy considers to be the worst song he ever wrote, that question was squarely aimed at the crowd to show off how clever the asker thought he was. [The look on Meloy’s face also indicated how sick he was of getting questions or comments about that song.]) I’ve stopped attending press junkets for films for the same reasons. At a junket, a number of writers who aren’t quite big enough to secure one-on-one interviews with the stars or directors or writers are sat at a table, where we have to fight for time to ask questions. Since there could be six or more outlets covering the same Q&A, you’ll likely read the same damn interview in a number of places. But there’s always one guy, and it’s ALWAYS a guy, who has to show off how clever he is, by asking some arcane questions about things that has nothing to do with why we’re all there in the first place, knowing full damn well none of the rest of us are going to include these stupid questions (and the stars’ incredulous responses) in our transcripts. Something really dumb like asking Burt Reynolds, at a roundtable for “The Last Movie Star,” if he has a story about Joan Blondell during the filming of “Angel Baby.” Those people are represented by Shane and Doug, played by Academy Award-nominee Ellar Coltrane and Clark Duke, respectively, the guys who run the International Nashville Film Festival, and Faith, the character played by Nikki Blonsky from the 2007 remake of “Hairspray,” who is first introduced by spouting off a mess of hashtags Vic should tag his photos of the event with, clearly oblivious this old man has absolutely no idea what she is talking about. People who are so star-struck and obsessed with the minutia of their idée fixe that they cannot see the profound changes to their lives coming right at them. There’s a good chance that this subtext will completely go over the heads of some who are watching this movie, so enraptured they will be over the prospect of Burt Fucking Reynolds maybe, possibly, finally getting that long deserved Oscar he maybe, possibly, truly never really did deserve before. And that’s what makes this movie better for me than other movies of this type.
Adam Rifkin has been on the fringe of cinema for far too long. His works about outsiders and outcasts, misfits and miscreants, have consistently been entertaining for more than a quarter century. Hopefully, The Last Movie Star will make some people seek out his other works, from The Dark Backward and Detroit Rock City to Look and Guiseppe Makes a Movie, and realize they’ve really been missing out on one talented filmmaker. And if it takes working with Burt Fucking Reynolds to make that happen, I’m cool with that.