It’s one of those predictable ironies that this gets to the top of my to-be-watched pile the day after Burt Reynolds dies … but my guess is that if I’d watched it last month, I’d still have got misty-eyed in the last act, where Reynolds – playing a character tailored to his biography, movie star Vic Edwards (born Marty Schulman) – looks back over his rollercoaster ride of a life as a stuntman-turned-star and wishes he’d handled everything better. He visits his long-since-left-behind first wife (Kathleen Nolan) in a care home and tries to make amends for long-since-forgotten wrongs, but she has Alzheimer’s and barely recognises him … which spurs him to at least heal the fresher wounds he’s inflicted on the enthusiastic but inept fans who’ve invited him to a rinky-dink festival in a bar in Nashville by showing up to accept their cheesy-looking lifetime award and delivering a rueful, wry speech that’s all the more poignant this week.
It opens with Vic getting the bad news that his dog will have to be put down – the original, more resonant title was Dog Years – and going through his daily routine as a well-off has-been, living alone in a luxury home, doing his own marketing, and meeting for a kvetch with Sonny (Chevy Chase) — his last surviving friend — in a café with a view of a yoga class that stirs memories but nothing else for a one-time superstud. He accepts the invitation to Nashville not because Sonny nags him to, but because he was born and raised in Knoxville, and has an urge to revisit his old haunts. There’s comic business as the one-time big shot is quietly affronted by a coach seat on the flight and a grotty motel room, and most of all by his distracted ‘assistant’ for the weekend, Lil (Ariel Winter), tattooed goth neurotic sister (her artwork is by Clive Barker) of the nerdy fan festival organiser Doug (Clark Duke). Vic admits that in most of the films he made you knew the ending from the beginning – and there’ve been enough crotchety codger movies to make it a sure thing that he’ll have some laughs, cry a bit, take a fatherly interest in Lil — who is dating an asshole (Juston Street) while ignoring decent guy Shane (Ellar Coltrane) – and learn late-in-life lessons. However, writer-director Adam Rifkin (The Dark Backward, Detroit Rock City, Director’s Cut) takes a wayward route, giving his star opportunities but never indulging him – in a fantasy sequence, old Vic is spliced into a scene with his younger self (in Deliverance) but Reynolds really shines when after shuffling and grumbling for over an hour he shows why Vic was a star, turning up at a swank hotel and talking his way into a suite, then delivering value for money with an impromptu song and speech at a wedding that happens to be taking place there.
Schulman-Edwards isn’t quite Reynolds, though Lil checks out Reynolds’ Playgirl spread and Johnny Carson appearances online while researching Vic – for the story to work, Vic has to be retired and near forgotten outside cult circles … but Reynolds kept so busy till the end that this wasn’t a last hurrah (he has seven more recent IMDb credits) so that the running joke about young folks here not knowing who Vic is wouldn’t wash with him. Rifkin has always been interested in fandoms – Detroit Rock City was about the KISS Army – and presents a much more honest, affectionate view of the organisers of the festival than most recent films (Supercon, for interest) about the nostalgia circuit. It’s a small point, but I love the fact that Duke and Coltrane are genuinely convincing as movie enthusiasts so excited to meet an idol they flounder socially – but aren’t caricatured as losers, except by Edwards at his most self-loathing. Doug has a girlfriend (Nikki Blonsky, from the Hairspray remake) and Shane is obviously the decent guy Lil should be with; Coltrane had a hump to get over in his career after his unique and eye-catching debut in Boyhood, but I’ve seen him play two major roles (the other is in Lucky McKee’s Blood Money) and a vivid cameo (in The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot) in the last month and he’s been excellent in all three outings.
In a just world, all stars who attain old age would get a valedictory movie. Boris Karloff did in Targets … Clark Gable in The Misfits … Gregory Peck in Old Gringo … John Wayne in The Shootist … even Joan Crawford in Trog. If Reynolds was underrated, he’s as responsible for that as anyone else – making jokes about his limited range and grinning through good old boy comedies even while directing more ambitious films and occasionally rising to something as good as Hustle or Boogie Nights. This is a fitting send-off for one of the most purely likeable leading men the movies ever had.