Let’s say hypothetically you have a fondness for Burt Reynolds (HOOPER, CITY HEAT, regular HEAT, MALONE, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II and III) but you find it depressing that circumstances have conspired to make his filmography this century include films like A MAGIC CHRISTMAS (as the voice of “Buster the Dog”), NOT ANOTHER NOT ANOTHER MOVIE, DELGO and Uwe Bolle’s IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE. Well, then THE LAST MOVIE STAR is for you. Writer-director Adam Rifkin (THE DARK BACKWARD, PSYCHO COP RETURNS, THE CHASE, DETROIT ROCK CITY, writer of MOUSEHUNT and SMALL SOLDIERS) devised the movie as a love letter to Burt’s career and a chance to show that he’s a legit actor. He wrote it for him and told him he would only make it with him. I think he hoped it could be a career reviver or re-contextualizer like LOST IN TRANSLATION or something.
I guess it’s too late for that, because it’s out on video today and you probly never heard of it. But it kinda fits the subject matter to be a shabby little obscurity getting by on alot of heart. See, Burt plays 80 year old former six-years-in-a-row box office champ Vic Edwards. He still has money and a nice house, but he lives alone, hobbles around like he’s someone who won’t be walking for long, and people barely look at him anymore. He’s like a super hero who’s lost his powers. He can’t get what he wants by strutting around and smiling at women. He’s much more likely to creep them out than impress them.
The movie opens with a real clip of handsome, charming young Burt on TV telling a funny story, casually taking in the adulation of the audience, then smash cuts to Vic skinny and wrinkled and having to put his dog to sleep.
He gets invited to accept a lifetime achievement award at a film festival in Nashville. It’s not his kind of thing, but he’s from Tennessee, and he’s lonely, so his friend (Chevy Chase, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN) convinces him it would be a good thing to do. But when he gets there the hotel is shitty and he’s being driven around by a rude, phone addicted young drama queen named Lil (Ariel Winter, KISS KISS BANG BANG, SPEED RACER) who barely wears pants and only knows that he’s “this old guy” but she’s doing it for her brother Doug (Clark Duke, SUPERBAD, KICK-ASS), founder of the “festival,” which is actually a bunch of young movie nerds at a bar watching Vic Edwards movies on a tiny fold up screen. Vic shows up and they applaud him and take selfies with him and he humors them for a Q&A but then he steps out, has some whisky, and things go south.
He’s not Burt, but I mean… he’s Burt. People seem to know him for a movie called SQUANTO, which looks suspiciously like NAVAJO JOE. And we see all kinds of clips and photos of his movies and him at the Oscars and even the Cosmopolitan bear rug centerfold and they’re all just Burt’s real career, no joke movies or anything. There are even dream sequences where old Vic is inserted into footage to speak to his younger self in two of Burt’s most iconic movies.
Doug and his friend Shane (Ellar Coltrane, BOYHOOD, BLOOD MONEY) are world class Vic Edwards nerds. They welcome him with awed excitement and apparent cluelessness about the uncomfortable situation they’ve put him in by making it sound like a prestigious event. I think they ring a little more true than your usual trivia-spewing-#1-fans-of-fictional-movie-stars in movies because Vic is so much Burt. They’re all wearing t-shirts silk-screened with the Bandit’s smiling face and their enthusiasm is similar to how people like us would react if we somehow got Burt Reynolds to come visit our bar. It actually reminded me alot of Cinefamily (RIP) with their sincere fandom and leather couches (though the Silent Theater of course has a real movie screen).
Vic quickly ditches the festival, but then decides to take a detour into his home town of Knoxville. It’s kind of a buddy movie between him and Lil, who still drives him around and they kind of hate each other until they don’t. He witnesses parts of her messy love life and he tries to give her good advice, which obviously doesn’t land right away. But it’s cool to watch her be surprised and impressed when people start to recognize him and it becomes more real to her what a big deal he is to some people.
A week or two ago I was at a library sale and I bought the SHARKY’S MACHINE soundtrack on vinyl. Both the grey haired lady who rang me up and the one who checked my receipt at the door said “Is that Burt Reynolds?” and had a combination “that takes me back” and “hubba hubba” reaction that they clearly could not control. It’s a real phenomenon that’s from before my time and I’m from way before Lil’s time and this is captured well in THE LAST MOVIE STAR.
But if it was just about “it’s sad to be a fading celebrity” that would be kinda empty. Luckily there’s much more to it than that. He’s not big on telling Hollywood stories, as much as those boys want him to be. The story is more about his regrets, and coming to terms with and apologizing for mistakes he’s made now that he realizes he might be getting toward The End (or the outtakes I guess if life is a Hal Needham picture).
The story is kinda shaggy but very likable and then all the sudden it comes together in a surprisingly emotional way, where he faces some of the heartbreaking shit that life throws at you and reveals himself to Lil in a way that really connects them.
This is very much a low budget indie drama. It’s not as clunky as the International Nashville Film Festival itself, but follows a similar pattern of overcoming any of its shortcomings with its sincerity. Burt gets to be a funny grump in the face of his depressing life, but also he goes through some real emotional growth. It’s great to see him get a chance as an octogenarian to do a real role, one that plays off of the iconic persona we remember while necessarily being so very different. Vigor replaced with feebleness, swagger replaced with resigned embarassment, smugness replaced with real humanity. And also it’s nice that he gets to celebrate his career in this way, and sort of stand up for it as something that still has some relevance or at least is worth still appreciating.
P.S. Here’s a weird thing: Lil is an artist, and Vic looks through a book of her art and I thought “That looks like Clive Barker art.” And yes, it turns out somehow they got Clive Barker (BRADLEY COOPER’S MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) to provide all of her artwork for the movie.
P.P.S. A couple summers ago I was in Knoxville for a wedding. The first night there we went to some speakeasy and talked to a couple of locals and they told us a movie was filming in town and after trying to describe who was in it we figured out they were talking about Chevy Chase and Burt Reynolds. And the next day at breakfast I overheard some people talking about seeing Burt and what movies in and I think they might’ve said he grew up around there, but if so that is not accurate, he grew up in Michigan and Florida. Maybe they said he filmed one of his old movies around there, I can’t remember. Anyway I did some research and found an article from the local newspaper that said the movie was called DOG DAYS and directed by Adam Rifkin. I was surprised it was a director I knew about and enjoyed the work of.
Since I was in town for several days and had some time to myself I made it my goal to see Burt Reynolds. I kept searching Twitter for Burt sightings and wandered around town, but nothing ever materialized. Oh well.
But on the way out of town we got to the airport, which has always been very quiet and peaceful in my experience, and there were people everywhere. Extras. They were filming right there. I hung around on the side and tried to get a look, but just saw crew and extras. I overheard some other travelers asking an airport employee about the filming and I thought I heard her giving some unfortunate news about Burt being a dick. But apparently I misunderstood.
And then I forget if someone pointed to him or if I just figured it out but beyond all those people in the picture and over to the left I spotted a tiny little Burt sitting talking to someone. I couldn’t get a picture but I saw him with my own eyes, he was there, I swear.
And it was funny to have this experience because it ruins some of the movie magic. Because now I know that when Burt and Chevy are hanging out in Hollywood at the beginning they are in fact in Knoxville in front of Tupelo Honey Cafe where I had some delicious rosemary peach lemonade. And after Vic goes inside LAX he’s actually in the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, and when he lands at the Nashville airport he’s actually still in the Knoxville airport. But eventually he actually goes to Knoxville in the story (it’s Vic’s home town, even if it’s not Burt’s) so they get to stop pretending it’s somewhere else and show the Sunsphere (that World’s Fair tower thing that was on The Simpsons, but I had brunch inside it and there were no wigs).
I know all you L.A. and maybe New York people are immune to it, but I’m in Seattle so I’m a dork who’s still excited to see movies filmed in places I’ve seen with my own eyes. But also I think it’s cool they filmed in Knoxville-for-Nashville just because you don’t see it every day, it’s interesting scenery that hasn’t really been worn out.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.