Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) is a frail, elderly former movie star struggling to cope with health problems, loss and a world that seemingly no longer recognizes him. When an invitation arrives to accept a lifetime achievement award at an independent film festival in Nashville, Vic sees a chance to relive past glories. Only things don't turn out as he expected. First his 'chauffeur' turns out to be Lil McDougal (Ariel Winter), a stroppy, scantily-clad teen Goth artist perpetually on the phone arguing with her boyfriend. Then the so-called festival turns out to be a glorified gathering of film geeks at the local dive bar led by Lil's nerdy brother Doug (Clark Duke). At first an embittered Vic vents his frustration at the crowd. But then he takes to the road, with Lil his initially reluctant companion, on a journey confronting a troubled past and uncertain future.
Although Burt Reynolds had several more films left prior to his passing in 2018 at age eighty-two, The Last Movie Star was designed purposefully, and in all honesty qualifies, as his swansong. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction the plot has Reynolds reflect upon a career notorious for its ups and downs, taking stock of missteps, regrets and decisions that might have made things turn out differently. Perhaps closer to the career path of Burt's more lauded contemporary Clint Eastwood (of whom Vic amusingly notes would not be caught dead hanging out "bunch of nerds in their basement.") The film arguably opens its most powerful note. A jarring jump-cut from real archive footage of a virile and charismatic young Burt appearing on The David Frost Show sometime in the early Seventies to a close-up on the haggard, hunched over, wisp of an old star he was in 2017. Staring directly into camera at the viewer in near accusatory fashion.
Thereafter, in its better moments as when Vic/Burt laments he has lost all the people he truly cared about, The Last Movie Star is almost unbearably poignant. Writer-director Adam Rifkin, who has himself led a quirky career encompassing direct-to-video horror films, oddball indie comedies and the occasional brief foray into the mainstream (e.g. The Chase (1994) and Detroit Rock City (1999)), incorporates real Burt quotes, actual incidents from his life and a couple of fascinating dream sequences wherein the star chides his younger, more arrogant self in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Deliverance (1972). However, stripped of its tragicomic allusions to Burt's real life and career, the story is all too conventional: ageing playboy on a road trip with youngster grapples with past mistakes, dispenses hard-won wisdom to the youth and eventually learns to appreciate the good things in his life. We have seen it many times before in films like My Favourite Year (1982) or Scent of a Woman (1992). Or even Burt's own final directorial effort The Last Producer (2000).
Unfortunately the film's more moving moments are sandwiched between layers of sweet but slight comedy-drama along with a few too many trite laments for the star's waning libido. As when Burt gazes wistfully as various gorgeous young things traipsing around Hollywood. Rifkin surrounds his star with a very capable cast, including Chevy Chase and under-utilized young talents like Ellar Coltrane, Clark Duke and Nikki Blonsky, but does not give them a whole lot to do. Despite some distractingly provocative attire Modern Family star Ariel Winter, a gifted actress, has great chemistry with Burt Reynolds. Yet the script lingers on a subplot involving Lil's cheating asshole boyfriend at the expense of her more compelling problems with anxiety and depression (interestingly, Lil's unsettling artwork was actually painted by cult horror author and filmmaker Clive Barker). What is more the advice she receives from Vic is far too simplistic. Nonetheless for all its failings The Last Movie Star remains a very warm, amiable film with a likable characters. It also gifts Reynolds with a wistful monologue that is genuinely moving. If the third act tries too hard to force a Hollywood Ending only the most hardhearted would begrudge that of cinema's most affable good ol' boy. So long, Burt. You will be missed.