Nobody played the role of movie star in the 1970s with more confidence than Burt Reynolds. Even as his choice of vehicles grew so indiscriminate as to gradually erode his box office appeal, he still radiated swagger, that ever-present smirk suggesting he — and we — knew it was all a put-on anyway. Perhaps the problem was that it was just too good an act: Burt Reynolds gave such excellent “Burt Reynolds” on talk shows, in interviews and other forums that the public saw little point in continuing to fork out cash money to see him do the same thing in yet another mediocre, derivative big-screen comedy or thriller. He didn’t take enough risks, and the few times he did were misfires or weren’t appreciated enough. Few stars achieved such massive popularity while retaining a sense of unrealized potential.
It’s a bittersweet legacy that writer-director Adam Rifkin aims to pay affectionate tribute to in “The Last Movie Star,” which has been retitled by U.S. distributor A24 after playing initial festival dates as “Dog Years.” Reynolds’ role as ailing, retired stuntman-turned-superstar-turned-recluse Vic Edwards was written for him, with plenty of biographical and in-joke details. But Rifkin, whose wildly uneven oeuvre has included some real dogs (“Homo Erectus,” “The Dark Backward,” “The Nutt House,” etc.), is not necessarily the right talent to pull off an autumnal love letter to a beloved, game performer. He makes an effort — as does his subject — but despite a few good moments, this well-intentioned seriocomedy mostly wobbles between crude yocks, lame generation-gap humor and sentimental cliche.
It seems borderline sadistic when viewers are first presented with Burt aka “Vic” in his peak glory, bantering with David Frost in an old broadcast clip, then slammed with a close-up of a frail old man sitting in a veterinarian’s office, waiting to put down his elderly dog. Clearly, it’s lonely at the top. Apart from Sonny (Chevy Chase), a pal with whom he meets for lunch, Edwards appears to have no one left in his life. Using a cane to painfully get around, he no longer works, nor appears to miss it. His ex-wives are all estranged, there are no living children, and he doesn’t milk any residual fame. It’s Sonny who urges him to accept the invitation of a film festival to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award amid a retrospective of his films.
Promised first-class treatment all the way, Vic is not amused to learn he’s been booked in an economy seat from L.A. to Nashville. Once on the ground, things get worse: Not only is he put up in a cheap motel, but the International Nashville Film Festival — not to be confused with the actual, legitimate Nashville International Film Festival — is an amateur affair run by fanboys (Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane) and held in a bar. Nor does Vic like Lil (Ariel Winter), the Goth-styled, heavily pierced twentysomething who’s his personal assistant for the weekend — an animosity that’s mutual. After throwing a drunken public fit, Vic orders Lil to take him back to the airport, then impulsively decides they’ll go instead to three hours distant Knoxville — his hometown, where he has some long-unfinished business.
“Star” improves as it goes along, mellowing from a rather crass start as Vic and Lil begin to bond across the generational divide. There’s a fairly touching climactic scene when he visits the first wife who was his “one true love” (Kathleen Nolan), though she’s now a rest-home resident whose memory is gone. But Rifkin’s writing is too on-the-nose even here, instead of trusting the actors to provide emotional depth without using dialogue to spell out every last sentiment.
Elsewhere, the comedy hits mostly broad notes that aren’t particularly funny, nor do they play to the performers’ strengths. (Reynolds was always an underrated farceur, though some of his best work was in otherwise bad movies like “Striptease.”) And while Winter, of “Modern Family,” brings some nuance to her role, too much of the leads’ dynamic centers on lame age-gap jokes (Vic doesn’t know what Instagram, TMZ or hashtags are). And a subplot about Lil’s dirtbag boyfriend (Juston Street) runs a predictable course.
It’s too bad “Last Movie Star” never quite transcends such pedestrian execution, because the intent is sincere enough, and some ideas show real potential, particularly having “Vic” interact with his old onscreen self, digitally dubbed into clips from “Deliverance” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” There are other useful purloinings from a fabled past (including the notorious “Cosmopolitan” centerfold), more vintage talk-show clips, and an excerpt from “Gunsmoke” (Reynolds appeared in 50 episodes of that show’s epic run.)
A brighter vehicle might have achieved something complexly meta with this mix of fiction and filmography, but “Star” never approaches that level. Rather, its limits of imagination and taste are perfectly defined in closing credits that feature salt-of-the-earth Willie Nelson singing a gotta-be-me anthem — albeit one written by pop-schlock queen Diane Warren.
Reynolds himself is, well, present. He rises to the occasion when the material provides opportunity. Elsewhere, any dissatisfaction with that material serves his character’s own tired, ornery exasperation. It was a mistake to have him sing a golden oldie in a scene where Vic drops in on some strangers’ wedding, but then you could charitably call even that a referential choice (see: “At Long Last Love”).
The Tennessee-shot feature is competently straightforward on all tech/design levels.