From the moment that “Dog Years” begins, the question isn’t if Burt Reynolds is playing a thinly veiled version of himself, but rather why? The aging, hobbled, and financially insecure Hollywood icon stars as Vic Edwards, an aging, hobbled, and financially insecure Hollywood icon.
And lest there be any confusion about the central conceit of this sweet-natured but fatally half-realized meta-drama about growing old and giving up, writer-director Adam Rifkin (“Detroit Rock City”) introduces his fictional hero with footage from one of Reynolds’ vintage talk show appearances, dubbing over the real actor’s name with that of his latest character.
The message comes through loud and clear: Burt Reynolds is communing with his past and coming to grips with the images that continue to haunt him, but he’s also adding one more (or one last) character to his wrinkled body of work. Unfortunately, while either one of those ideas might have made for a fun movie on their own, the corny and haphazard way that Rifkin smushes them together results in a well-intentioned but tedious tribute that’s too generic to take advantage of its introspective lead performance.
Vic is a basic caricature of a sad old man, a shell of his former self. Of course, movie stars age worse than the rest of us, no matter how good they look. Vic’s decrepitude is amplified by his former beauty, his anonymity is more deeply felt because of his former fame, and his loneliness is exacerbated by the fact that women used to throw themselves at him if he so much as smiled in their general direction. And if that’s not tragic enough, Vic’s dog dies in the first scene of the film, leaving Chevy Chase as his last remaining friend (*shudder*).
As the two pals sag over their lunches and stare longingly at the Los Angeles girls doing yoga nearby, Vic mentions that he’s received a lifetime achievement award from the International Nashville Film Festival. Chevy encourages his pal to go pick it up in person.
Alas, INFF isn’t quite the glamorous event that Vic had in mind, a fact that becomes frightfully clear when he’s picked up at the airport by a troubled teenager named Lil (“Modern Family” actress Ariel Winter, saddled with a thin drag of a role that exists for no other reason than to transparently spark a change in the main character). Too bitter and curmudgeonly to suffer the local film nerds who are behind this rinky-dink operation (a group of blandly overzealous fanboys led by Clark Duke and Ellar Coltrane), Vic insists that Lil drive him to Knoxville so that he can say goodbye to the place where he grew up and the people he loved there. Road trip!
Is that sort of nostalgia tour a fantasy that Burt Reynolds has harbored during old age? Is “Dog Years” all an elaborate work of wish fulfillment? It’s hard to say, as this, of course, is not a film about Burt Reynolds. The actor may bear an uncanny resemblance to Vic Edwards, but they’re completely different people. For one thing, Reynolds hails from Michigan, not Tennessee. For another, Reynolds’ past is interesting, while the backstory that Rifkin invents for Vic is a flimsy pastiche of predictable indie tropes. The childhood home. The Alzheimer’s-addled ex-wife. The bottle of Viagra that allows him to sustain the delusion that he might ever have a reason to open it. Each newly introduced detail feels more forced than the last, the film underscoring the superficiality of its own writing every time it reminds us of the legacy that Reynolds has actually left behind.
This is a film that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy about being an old man or a drama about being an expired celebrity, and Rifkin doesn’t display the grace required to thread the needle between the two. By the time that he edits Vic into the classic car chase scene from “Smokey and the Bandit,” the 81-year-old Reynolds sitting in the passenger seat across from his virile younger self, it’s hard to understand why “Dog Years” didn’t just go the “Being John Malkovich” route and allow the actor to play himself. We’re meant to be believe that Vic was actually in “Deliverance.” It’s like they couldn’t get the life rights to their own leading man. Vic is too focused on who he was to bother improving who he is, but that hardly carries any weight when those were literally two different people.
Reynolds, for his part, is solid in the role, endowing Vic with the same matter-of-fact exasperation that he brought to the immortal likes of “Boogie Nights” and “At Long Last Love” — as with all of the actor’s finest performances, it always seems like he would rather be somewhere else. At this point, he may not have somewhere else to be, but the fact remains that he’s lived a fascinating life. If only someone would make a movie about him.
“Dog Years” premiered in the Viewpoints section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.