It’s a rare thing to hear an audience’s collective heart break. It’s ever rarer to hear it in an audience comprised of New York film critics. I only had one such experience in 2016: it was the scene in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake when the starving single mother played by Hayley Squires cracks open a can of pasta sauce in a soup kitchen, pouring it into her hands so she could lap it up like a dog. I heard that heart-break once again during Adam Rifkin’s Dog Years. The scene in question comes about a third of the way through when forgotten octogenarian actor Vic Edwards is asked at an International Nashville Film Festival panel why he abandoned the prestigious roles of his early career for action cinema pablum. Although the term “film festival” might be stretching it: the INFF is in actuality a series of movie screenings held in a dive bar by a group of movie fanatics. Edwards only flew out from his home in Los Angeles because he mistook their invitation as being from the similarly named Nashville International Film Festival. But when faced with a panel attended by a small horde of fanboys, he downs a shot of whiskey and answers their questions. Why did he turn down roles like the lead in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico to star in car chase movies? “Those other guys, Eastwood, Nicholson, Pacino, they picked the right roles. As for me…bad choices. Just bad choices.” And as he gently smiles, my theater sighed as one.
We sighed not just because this answer was inherently sad, but because of the man who was playing Edwards: none other than one-time Hollywood superstar and recent cultural punchline Burt Reynolds. Yes, Burt Reynolds was on the top of the world for a while. In the 70s he was one of the most popular and highest grossing leading men in American movies, earning both widespread fame and critical admiration for roles in classics like Deliverance (1972) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). But then he started to fall off, picking worse and worse roles as the careers of his Hollywood New Wave contemporaries like Robert De Niro skyrocketed. The roles he turned down were the stuff of legend: Officer John McClane, James Bond, Han Solo. Now he’s known more for his mustache and his infamous nude photoshoot in Cosmo. But Reynolds remembers. And so does his cinematic protege Vic Edwards. For they had the same career, the same ups and downs, even the same personal lives. The film was a labor of love for Rifkin, having written it solely with Reynolds in mind. He admitted that if Reynolds had said no to it, he would never have made the film. But Reynolds did and now we have a truly magnificent twilight tribute to one of the titans of Hollywood. Much like with Jerry Lewis in Max Rose (2016), Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), and John Wayne in The Shootist (1976), the film works as both a celebration of his career, a eulogy, and finally an apotheosis.
Reynolds may be the main character in Dog Years, but the film focuses primarily on his relationship with Lil (Ariel Winter), the sister of the festival’s founder who reluctantly serves as Edwards’ chauffeur. Scantily clad, heavily tattooed, and improperly overmedicated, Lil is a fireball of self-hatred, loathing, cynicism, and self-destructing despair. After the disastrous first night at the festival, Edwards commandeers Lil and her beat up car for a road trip to Knoxville three hours away. Their weekend misadventures lead to a grudging respect and love between the two as they begin to realize that they truly need each other. It’s a relationship we’ve seen before in a number of movies, but there’s a raw sincerity in the two performances and in Rifkin’s direction that keep it fresh.
Rifkin worked for years to get Dog Years made. Several times the funding fell through and he had to tell Reynolds the terrible news. But each time Reynolds encouraged him to keep going. Perhaps that’s why Dog Years has such power: it’s a labor of love, of mutual admiration, of fraternal respect. But it’s also a film of deep sacrifice. Reynolds pulls no punches depicting the wear and tear of 80 years of fast living. At no point does his elderliness seem noble; the decades have left him hobbled, shrunken, wizened, and sickly. There’s a devastating scene where he collapses in a bathroom and whimpers to himself that time has taken all his friends away. “One by one, they’ve all just disappeared.” And in that moment, we’re not sure if we’re watching Reynolds or Edwards. Perhaps there was never a difference between the two in the first place.
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