Films in which celebrities play an alternate universe version of themselves always embrace their audience’s voyeurism. It’s easy to buy into Burt Reynolds as Vic Edwards, an aged movie star whose life is lonely, faded and vulnerable, because his sadness plays on his fame so well. Self-reference fuels our eagerness for insight: This is how Reynolds really lives, right? His performance is a promise of some truth into someone we’ve purported to know for decades, despite being fictional. Though the film is about learning to love them and himself, Dog Years is what happens when the idea of Burt Reynolds is at the mercy of his fans.
Written and directed by professed Reynolds fanboy Adam Rifkin (who’s created yet another eclectic entry into a varied creative career featuring Small Soldiers and Detroit Rock City), the film is about the Tennessean Edwards traveling to a Nashville film festival in order to be honored with a lifetime achievement award. But surprise: The festival is secretly only a couple of nerds in a basement with a projector. Clark Duke is great as annoying founder Doug while Doug’s sister Lil (Ariel Winter, choking on stale lines) acts as Edwards’ chauffeur and personal assistant. She’s a too-cool goth whose nose ring could function as a light switch for her roles in the film: Flipped up, she’s a silent brooder for Edwards to fix, but flipped down, she’s an exposition machine pushing us from scene to scene by announcing what emotional stop we’re at currently, like a subway pre-recording over a PA system.
It becomes increasingly clear, as the plot unfolds and the directorial surrogates (film fest nerds Doug and his friend Shane, played by a terribly wooden Ellar Coltrane) reiterate their undying love for Edwards, that the film will march a well-trodden path in its single-minded pursuit. Fandom undermines Dog Years. Which isn’t to say that Reynolds is undeserving of the love he’s shown in the film, complete with some cleverly written and impressively constructed digital juxtaposition of his current self with his past movies like Deliverance—it’s that the rest of the film martyrs itself to make him look good. Edwards’ grapples with mortality—daydreaming of better times between limping or reaching for pill bottles—are the film’s only attempts a creatively rendering an internal life instead of talking about Edwards internal life in choppy sentences.
Rarely should films operating as narrative representations of real individuals be helmed by these real individuals’ biggest fans. No darlings will ever be killed, no sacrifices made, lest the film become anything shy of a devotional. It’s how Dog Years ends up including a scene where its washed-up star drunkenly crashes a wedding, becomes the guest of honor and wishes the married couple well after a few endearing jabs. Sound like a completely familiar fantasy? Perhaps it’s because Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman, a show built around dismantling cliché from within, included that exact scene in its episode “Love And/Or Marriage.” Reynolds’ performance—a with crinkly gravitas, bourbon-y snark and genuine wistfulness, it’s a hell of a performance—just isn’t worth this many tired scenes and ideas.
A road trip to Edwards’ pre-fame home in Knoxville ensues, Lil and Edwards learn to appreciate one another, and it’s all as saccharine and predictable as it sounds. Still, for those willing to wade through all the corniness, there’s a gem at the center of the maze in Reynolds’ resonating role. Rifkin obviously knows he’s lucky to have the icon, and so do the characters in the film, but unlike in the film, Reynolds never has to learn to appreciate who he is. Dog Years’ lack of faith in its audience makes its over-explanation and hackneyed groaners unshakable weights on a story that only needed to let Reynolds do his thing.
Director: Adam Rifkin
Writer: Adam Rifkin
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Ariel Winter, Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.