In the 1970s and ’80s, Burt Reynolds was not only a movie star — fronting memorable films like Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance — but also a sizzling sex symbol who promised trouble, posed nude while smiling like a centerfold, and committed affable mayhem on talk show appearances. Now Reynolds is in his 80s. And though warmly remembered as a beloved bad boy, he is undoubtedly past his prime. And so, he looks back on his career through Dog Years, a drama that blends archival footage and clips of his classic filmography with the story of his fictional doppelgänger Vic Edwards.
Written and directed by Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City, Small Soldiers), Dog Years follows a washed-up Vic on a wonky road trip with a furious impromptu chauffeur named Lil (Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter). Together, they revisit the hometown he abandoned in favor of Hollywood and the pursuit of fame.
The film begins with a vintage clip of a young Reynolds on a forgotten chat show, his smile cutting across the decades with a dangerous verve. Then Dog Years smash-cuts to the present: Reynolds wrinkled, listless face in close-up confronts us with the cruel passage of time that won’t let even our most adored icons escape. Efficiently, Rifkin paints Vic’s world as shrinking and lonely. His old dog has just been put down in a none-too-subtle metaphor. His home is empty of loved ones or bustle. His routine involves TV dinners alone, and the occasional pathetic outing with Chevy Chase, where the two faded stars kvetch over coffee while leering at a batch of young women obviously bending over in nearby a yoga class.
Rifkin wants to paint Vic as an old dog yet lovable rogue, but fails outright on the latter. To break up the bitter monotonies of his life, Vic agrees to go to Nashville as the guest of a film festival that promises him “first class accommodations” and a “Lifetime Achievement Award” previously offered to Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood. But Vic steadily sours on the event as he’s forced into the indignities of flying coach like lowly non-famous folk, being picked up not by a limo but a junker car with a fowl-mouthed driver (Winter), and checked into a noisy motel where the upgrade means a coffee pot, mini-fridge, and microwave sharing a crowded corner space. When he turns up to the festival’s kick-off event to discover it’s in a dive-bar where a motley assembly of chairs have been arranged to face a puny pull-down projection screen, he blows his top, drunkenly calling the crowd “losers” to their faces, and crushing the spirits of the fest’s founders who eagerly call themselves his biggest fans.
Rifkin does not give us an anti-hero, but an outright asshole who hisses insults and condescending life advice when he’s not ogling women a quarter of his age or losing himself in the memories of his good ol’ days. Vic is a repellent protagonist, who lacks any of Reynolds’ signature spark or charm. Reynolds feels like he’s sleepwalking through much of the role. While he occasionally perks up during the film’s most earnest emotional moments, he by and large seems just as bored by this adventure as Vic. And so instead of getting to relish in surreal moments where now Reynolds is composited into Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, carrying on awkward conversations with his younger, more strapping self, these scenes play as cruel comparison, reminding audiences of when Reynolds actually appeared to give a damn about his craft.
For her part, Winter tries desperately to make up for his lack of energy. But playing a Manic Pixie Bitch on Wheels, she overdoes it becoming a cartoon of a troubled young woman whose covered in faded tattoos, ranting about her long history of mood-stabilizing drug experimentation, and endlessly turning to her phone to fight with her brutish, cheating boyfriend Bjorn. To her credit, Winter provides a far cry from her bookish and snarky Modern Family character, showing admirable range. But Rifkin seems to mock her efforts, offering her a ridiculous uniform of a crop top that barely covers her ample bust, and a pair of Jean shorts so short and so shredded that they expose a regularly distracting amount of her bare ass.
I assumed this was meant to be a joke about how inappropriate a personal assistant the festival had provided to Vic, and that Winter would be given something more substantial later. But for the entirety of the movie, half her ass is hanging out—whether she’s battling with her bad boyfriend, coaching Vic through a tough emotional beat, or crashing a very posh wedding where mysteriously no one bats an eye at her outfit. I know this seems a petty point to be hung up on. But I believe it speaks to Rifkin’s lack of understanding of women, emphasized by the other female characters in the film, most of whom are scantily clothed and/or dedicated to fawning over Vic in flashbacks and a tone-deaf climax that essentially makes a pivotal character mute to avoid the selfish movie star getting any kind of comeuppance. Women are objects of Vic’s lust or pity, and that is all.
Dog Years is a movie that strives for elegiac depth, but achieves only snoozy shallowness. Its emotions are forced or fractured. Its jokes are achingly cornball, like this exchange between Chevy and Vic about whether he should attend the Nashville festival:
Chevy: Nashville’s become pretty hip!
Vic: That’s what I’m worried about, my hip! What if I break it?
Beyond that, Rifkin attempts to chisel out an unlikely but charming friendship between Vic and Lil, but Reynolds is practically comatose and Winter’s is full-on manic, making for a chemistry that is catastrophic, not compelling. All of this builds to an earnest but unearned conclusion that gives its vicious, self-centered star too easy a road to redemption. Ultimately, despite its hard turn to sentimentality in the final act, Dog Years falls under the weight of its own condescending attitude toward fans and flyover states. By buying so hard into Vic’s smug and alienating ideology, Dog Years cuts off its audience from seeing him as little more than a rightfully lonely jerk, and seeing the film as little more than a waste of time.
2 out of 5 burritos:
Images: Broken Twig Productions Inc.