The first time Burt Reynolds walked onscreen with a cane was all the way back in 1989, in Bill Forsyth’s elegiac burglar buddy comedy, Breaking In. Reynolds, then 50-ish but playing 60-ish, embodied in that too-little-seen film something American men know all too well: He played the guy who wishes he could be a Burt Reynolds character, who dreams of laid-back cocksureness, of facing life with an easy laugh and a rakish mien, of being feted and fondled by beautiful women in between the car chases.
Breaking In is so good that it might make Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star, the latest entry in the “Reynolds reflects” genre, superfluous. Here, almost 30 years later, the now 80-ish Reynolds again gets around with a cane, again looks dismayed by aging, again perks up in those moments in which life affords him the chance to live like young Burt Reynolds. Breaking In let viewers make the connections between character and performer, trusting our attentiveness and its lead’s star persona; The Last Movie Star, by contrast, is cornily meta-fictional, casting Reynolds as Vic Edwards, a Reynolds-like star whose backstory is filled out with footage of actual Reynolds movies and TV appearances. The film’s nadir comes in scenes in which present-day Reynolds — frail, rasping, but fully alive in the eyes — shares the screen with footage of his younger self, in his most famous roles. Think Krapp’s Last Tape but in the black Trans-Am from Smokey and the Bandit: We see Burt Today ride shotgun with Burt the Bandit, crabbing at his younger self about his recklessness. “You think you’re going to live forever?” Burt Today asks from the Sally Field seat. “You’re on a collision course. You’re about to make a lot of bad life decisions.”
Burt the Bandit smirks. Sometimes he’ll speak some old line, from 40 years back, but the effect is unconvincing, the editing raggedy — these scenes play something like when a talk-show comic conducts a fake interview with a politician, asking new questions that get spliced into old video.
Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) seems to take the warnings of Burt Today seriously. The Last Movie Star premised on the assumption that Reynolds blew his career, disappointing himself and his fans. At the lifetime achievement award film festival that movies like this depend upon (see also The Hero, last year’s drama about Sam Elliott facing regrets/getting laid), one devotee asks Reynolds’ Vic point-blank why he “turned down Serpico for Johnny Speedway” — why he passed on serious dramatic roles in favor of churning out car-chase movies. The scene is set in a makeshift film screening in the back room of a Nashville bar, an event that enthusiastic young film geeks have tricked Edwards into attending. Drunk and sour, he doesn’t answer, instead telling stories about actresses and makeup women he seduced, and carping that he hasn’t received first-class accommodations. The film’s first third finds him complaining, moping and mournfully staring at the asses of young women who no longer notice him. Reynolds never appears in full command of his body, and at times the performance is painful to watch, not simply because the one-time golden boy has aged but because the role demands that he act as if aging is a betrayal, as if he has nothing to offer the world without his youthful vigor.
Movies like this inevitably pair the old man with a young woman. At least this time they don’t hook up. Ariel Winter is all shouting nervous energy as thonged and short-shorted and half-shirted Lil, Vic’s volatile driver for the weekend. I emphasize her wardrobe because that’s about all there is to her character. You can guess Lil’s arc from her first scene: As she leaps from her car, shouting into her phone at some dude who has betrayed her, she snarls, “I do too have a job — I’m picking up some old asshole for my brother.” What are the odds that, eventually, maybe after an impromptu road trip, she’ll come to love and respect Vic, and learn that she’s too good for the cheater, all while sparing viewers the apparently verboten sight of octogenarian Reynolds sharing the screen with a woman anywhere near his age? (Clark Duke, as Lil’s brother, does some warm and funny work as the film fan throwing the threadbare festival.)
The Last Movie Star asks us to feel piercing regret for the choices that the real Burt Reynolds made, and to find it a little sad that young women don’t throw themselves at him. Another low point: Vic, at the festival Q&A, notes that the breasts of one long-gone ex-love “probably look like saggy socks filled with manure now.” The script contrives to make him seem a nicer, better man by the end, of course, by sending him on a drive through his old hometown. But it never comes close to illuminating its character or Reynolds — something Breaking In achieved with wit and emotion.
Vic never answers that question about why he starred in so many car-chase movies, and The Last Movie Star, after having brought it up, can’t find anything fresh or interesting to say about it. But an uneasy implication hangs over the rest of the film: That The Last Movie Star, meandering and maudlin and drearily predictable as it is, is somehow redemptive for Reynolds, that this makes up for lost time and Cannonball Run II. But by the time Rifkin has given us the sight of Vic, drunk, straddling the kids’ mechanical horse in front of a grocery store and lecturing about how he never should have given up being a stuntman, all I could think was, “But the car-chase movies were better than this.”
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