Burt Reynolds’ extremely brief cameo in “The Player” comes to mind while watching “The Last Producer,” a film he directs and headlines. In the Altman pic, Reynolds spit out an angry ad-lib, referring to the ambitious studio suits who stop to schmooze with him as “assholes.” Reynolds undoubtedly meant it, and he puts some of that emotion into this film, which will air on USA Network. What comes out isn’t quite satire — he’s not trying to duplicate Altman here — and the story’s too slack and slow, but this mournful comedy benefits from a certain soulfulness in Reynolds’ treatment of a once-successful, at least modestly talented producer who genuinely believes he still has something to offer.
Reynolds plays Sonny Wexler, a guy who produced a few popular films that may or may not have been pretty good. Now, after 40 years in the biz, Sonny has a hard time getting his pitches heard, let alone purchased. Most of the powerful people he knew have retired or passed away, although his buddy and former partner Syd (a sympathetic Charles Durning), still makes sure he can get on the lot and keeps him tuned in to the gossip channels. The latest news is that the studio’s head honcho, the ice-cold Damon Black (Benjamin Bratt), is hot for a script by a writer Sonny’s been nurturing. Plotline of the pic involves Sonny trying to raise the $50,000 he needs to exercise his informal option and make sure he stays attached to the project.
Sonny knows this is his very last shot, and hopes just a touch of his old success will rejuvenate his pill-popping wife (Ann-Margret) and even help out his gambling-addicted son-in-law (“Ally McBeal’s” Greg Germann). But the further he goes to try and secure a loan from a seedy and potentially dangerous Armenian millionaire (Robert Costanzo), the more he questions whether it’s worth it after all.
Reynolds clearly wants to present Sonny as a real guy — he’s not a comic fraud, nor is he a tragically neglected genius. The character isn’t drawn with the sharpest clarity, and at times the portrayal becomes just a touch self-pitying, but overall this is an honest, caring view of a Hollywood has-been, and it reaches moments of true poignancy.
The film does get lethargic, but it gets a big boost not a moment too soon in the form of Rod Steiger, who enters the second half of the story as an eccentric former cop who insists, in cryptic cliches, that he can take care of just about anything. Steiger and Reynolds have some real comic chemistry, the type that’s so unforced, so natural, that they’re funnier just looking at each other silently than speaking. With their equally oversized on-screen personalities, this duo deserves a more clever vehicle created just for them.