‘The Last Movie Star’ lets Burt Reynolds down

Harold DuckettFeature, Our Town Arts

There was a lot of excitement at the Tennessee Theatre Thursday night for the Knoxville premiere of “The Last Movie Star.” The movie’s star, Burt Reynolds, 82, was on-hand and still possessing his sharp wit.

The event was both a showcase for the movie, filmed, in part, in Knoxville in the summer of 2016, and for the city as a movie-making location. Visit Knoxville hosted the event.

Reynolds plays a character, Vic Edwards, who is actually a fictional impersonation of Reynolds himself. The movie’s writer and director Adam Rifkin wrote the film just for Reynolds.

During the on-stage conversation between Reynolds and the movie’s producers before the movie began, Reynolds remarked “I was about half-way through the movie when I realized, damn, this is about me.”

The movie is about an actor, long past his prime, who is invited to receive a life-achievement award being presented by a Nashville group, the International Nashville Film Festival. It turns out to be more of a sham than a celebrated reality. But the trip from Hollywood to Nashville for the event leads Edwards even further east to Knoxville, the town where he grew up.

The “festival” is run by a bunch of young movie buffs, headed up by Doug McDougal (Clark Duke), at a low-rent bar in a less-than-the-best section of Nashville. McDougal’s semi-goth sister, Lil (Ariel Winter) is tasked with being Edwards’ chauffeur for the weekend, hauling him around in a junked-up, run-down car that saw its better days a couple of decades ago.

Chevy Chase makes a cameo appearance, as Edwards’ friend, to help boost the movie’s marketing appeal. The rest of the cast is mostly young unknowns, except for Kathleen Nolan, who plays Edwards’ first wife, Claudia Schulman, whom Edwards and Lil visit in a Knoxville nursing home.

To escape the lunacy of the film festival, Edwards forces Lil to drive him to Knoxville where the heart of the movie takes place.

Knoxville looks good, even though much else does. The Victorian house on Grainger Avenue, where the fictional Edwards grew up, looks like a great house for any family.

Mayors Madeline Rogero and Tim Burchett present Burt Reynolds with a “keycard” to the city, as producer Neil Mandt looks on.

There are also scenes outside and inside Neyland Stadium, where Edwards was a college football star. The lobby of the Tennessee Theatre is turned into the lobby of the Knoxville Grand Hotel, where Edwards and Lil stay.

The interior of the big house behind the wall on Lyons View Pike that’s been a subject in local society news, served as the luxury suite in the hotel.

Unfortunately, the locations serve Reynolds’ character better than the overall storyline.

Reynolds, during the ’70s, was the hottest star in Hollywood. He was offered choice roles like Han Solo in Star Wars and even the role of James Bond. He was a great-looking leading man, so much so that “Cosmopolitan” ran a nude photo of him sprawled on a bearskin rug in 1972.

But Reynolds wasn’t the best at making decisions regarding his own career. His role as Lewis Matlock in “Deliverance” in 1972 could have set him on a memorable course in Hollywood. Instead, he followed it with roles in “Smoky and the Bandit,” “Gator,” “White Lightning” and “Cannonball Run,” all of which show up in flash-back clips as Edwards remembers his history in the movies. They made Reynolds wads of money but damaged his chances as a serious actor.

It all comes off as a bit sad and more than a bit shallow.

Writer and director Adam Rifkin had the opportunity to write “The Last Movie Star” as a meditation on lost celebrity and stardom. Parts of the movie play that way. Despite Reynolds’ reputation as largely a goof-ball actor, there are scenes in which Reynolds shows that he has the emotional depth to have carried off a rich and memorable performance full of wisdom. He is convincing in those moments that are there.

Instead, Rifkin chose to shape the film as a comedy, along the line of the films in Reynolds’ past, instead of a movie about a career that could have been.

The result is that Rifkin seems to have less confidence in Reynolds’ ability as an actor than at least this fan does.

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