Letterboxd Review: The Last Movie Star (2017)

As a tribute to the late great Burt Reynolds, this concludes the Letterboxd reviews retrospective on different stages of the actor's long, storied career.

And so, what words do I use to close the book on my little sojourn through some of Burt Reynolds' work? Charm, certainly. Respect, most definitely. But the word I keep coming back to, especially after watching The Last Movie Star, is "effortless." The man made it all look so easy back in the glory days, the shirt buttoned down to his navel days, the smirking riotous nonsense with Johnny Carson days. The man was handsome. The man was funny. The man...was a natural.

Adam Rifkin, journeyman Hollywood screenwriter and director of such varied fare as Invisible Maniac, Detroit Rock City, and Mousehunt, crafts the film--originally titled Dog Years--around not just the abilities and honesty of the octogenarian Reynolds, but around the need for reflection at such an age and body of work. What starts as a clever bit of trickery, using old talk show clips of Reynolds during his heyday and some quick ADR to cast him as fictional Vic Edwards, eventually becomes a more blatant meditation on the real actor and his real career when the wizened 2017 pater familias is transported into several of his most famous films to banter a little with his younger counterpart, exclaim at his recklessness, and marvel at his magnetism. Like the film itself, this device varies in effectiveness, but it's never less than captivating thanks to both versions of Reynolds himself.

A24 absolutely kills it with small, intimate films, and Rifkin has always kept something of an indie sensibility to his work. While Detroit Rock City is a hammy screenplay of mundane teen comedy staples, I still appreciate the scrappy nature of the production in the first two acts. Similarly, The Last Movie Star is a small, cozy film that quietly observes an unflinching exploration of pain...for a little while. Vic Edwards' fame and glory has faded, and he now ambles through the grocery store selecting freezer dinners, and chuckles bitterly through curmudgeonly coffee sessions with his old buddy, played briefly by Chevy Chase. But within twelve minutes of screen time, the film whisks him off to Nashville to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at a small film festival. A two-second shot of Reynolds crammed into a middle seat in coach is all we need, and we're there. The economy and care of these first few minutes doubles as an amazing, award-worthy short about time's arrow marching forward, and the loneliness of trying to keep up.

And then, zang...we step into something a little less inspired, a little more safe, and a little more predictable in its trajectory. The Nashville setting (confusingly mistaking the vibrant city as some kind of podunk truck stop) causes the most melancholy of honky-tonk warbles to accentuate the tone of this increasingly weary comedy of broken expectations, as Vic is dismayed to see his first-class accommodations amount to a sad highway motel, and a loud punker girl as his disinterested, dysfunctional assistant and driver. The film festival is a slapdash DIY affair in the back of a saloon hosted by a bevy of excited young geeks, and apparently Vic has fallen far enough out of the spotlight that this time it really, really stings. Things go south faster than I expected. A purely functional fish-out-of-water comedy would have marinated much longer in the lingering disappointment and mutual uneasiness of these film geeks and their elder hero. This movie continues to err on the side of efficiency and more naked bitterness, and skips directly to the part where the celebrity stops faking magnanimous smiles and starts calling out his hosts and shattering their illusions.

After a night of drunken boorishness, Vic gets the real meat of the film going and drags his weekend assistant, Lil, through a farewell tour of his life. Vic is from Tennessee as well, and so he sees fit to salvage his time and travel by giving a final goodbye to his memories, his regrets, and roads both taken and not. There's some bonding to be had with the emotionally raw Lil, some soliloquies to be shared, and some hard truths for an old man to face.

Reynolds sighs, exhales sharply, and winces with almost every movement. He's hunched over, visibly feeble. For a man who used to symbolize virility and masculinity, this role might have been as painful for him to confront as some of his other big acting challenges, such as Deliverance. Always submerged in the moment, saying more with his eyes and truly reacting to his scene partners, Reynolds is in an entirely different film from everyone else, including Rifkin. This is his swan song, as it turns out, a film about him that gives him a chance to tell the story from where he made his final place in the business. It's a gut-wrenching performance, one of the best of his career. And while the younger Burt rose to super-stardom on the back of making it look easy...effortless...this role requires every effort both physical and emotional to be seen.

I wish I could say the rest of the movie can keep up with the old man. Ariel Winter is absolutely capable as Lil, playing against type from her "Modern Family" television character as a belligerent goth scribbling disturbing Clive Barker drawings and screaming incoherently at her shitheel boyfriend. She has a heart of gold, of course, and her manic millennial need to tap away at her phone, Instagram every moment, and burst away to the next diversion helps to inject some energy into all the bittersweet recollection. Winter plays the character with conviction, and I do find sympathy for her story as well, but I'm not sure if it's her performance or Rifkin's direction that causes her to play Lil as one half of a standard mismatched buddy road comedy, which The Last Movie Star never really settles into. Reynolds and his semi-autobiographical character aren't here for that bullshit, they are too old. They don't have time for it. They'd be the first to tell you so.

As a standalone film to put on and engage with, this one moves along in fits and starts, landing gently once in a while on a powerful human element or two. If only it could get past the workman-like structure and middling functionality of "old man brought low, lets go of the olden days, makes good" that we've seen before, it could be something special in and of itself. As a tribute and a final meditation on the legend of Burt Reynolds and his career, from football star to daring stuntman, to easygoing cowboy charmer to raw dramatist, from celebrity power-couple and tabloid participant to wise old cleric of showbiz magic, The Last Movie Star is a fitting Hollywood ending with still a touch of that scrappy, rakish scoundrel mentality that served the man so well.

Goodbye Burt. May I say, you're the goddamnedest pursuee movie fans ever pursued. You made 'em all look like they were running in slow motion, son.

Rating: ✰✰✰

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.
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