Dog Years (2017)

Burt Reynolds might not be the ultimate male celebrity, but he certainly makes a case for it in Dog Years, a film about aging stardom, regret, and the possibility of redemption even for an asshole. The film opens with elderly Hollywood star Vic Edwards (Reynolds) having to put down his dog Squanto, an act that precipitates all that comes after, as Vic is forced to face up to his past mistakes, feeling like he’s an old dog about to be put down. The same day, Edwards receives an invitation to a film festival in Nashville, where he’s being honored with a lifetime achievement award. Encouraged by his friend (Chevy Chase), Edwards packs up and heads off to his home state of Tennessee to receive the award, only to be picked up at the airport by Lil (Ariel Winter), a foul-mouthed young woman in a beat-up car who introduces herself as his assistant for the weekend. When he arrives in the city, Vic discovers that the film festival is actually just a crowd of film geeks putting on screenings in the backroom of a bar.

Dog Years trades on Reynolds’s undoubted celebrity, even casting the elder Burt in conversation with his younger self. In this, it’s not much of a change from many films that grapple with aging stars faced with a system obsessed by youth and a world that has passed them by. Dog Years alters the paradigm only slightly by establishing a dialogue between a younger generation of characters, all of whom admire Vic’s cinematic past without a trace of irony, and Vic, who has become at best an obscure celebrity, living in his old image. As Vic and Lil travel around Knoxville, reliving Vic’s past, the elder man comes to terms with mistakes made by his younger self, revealing a depth of self-reflection and understanding. Dog Years (happily) avoids creating a romance between Vic and Lil, but he’s also not a father figure—they grow to be friends, and he enforces, for her, that she’s worth more than what any man thinks of her. The story is about buoying the younger generation and an acceptance, on Vic’s part, that while his youthful stardom might be behind him, he’s still worth something in the eyes of a few important fans.

Intentionally or not, Dog Years also has something to say about film fandom, and the admiration of a younger generation for the old. The kids (Clark Duke, Nikki Blonsky, Ellar Coltrane, and Al-Jaleel Knox) putting on the festival truly do admire Vic, whether or not he deserves it and even when he proves to be less the idol that they want him to be. The film avoids either ironizing or satirizing that fandom—the boys are genuine and their admiration comes to mean something to Vic as he begins to come terms with his past. The film constructs a complicated relationship between an older generation that doesn’t want to let go and a younger on that is holding on to nostalgia, sometimes in spite of reality.

The unlikely team of Reynolds and Winter results in some happy surprises. Reynolds reminds us of why he was a star in the first place, delivering a performance that is nuanced and moving without discarding his iconic status as a rake. Winter, meanwhile, is slowly coming out of her sitcom roots, stretching herself a bit to play the foul-mouthed, tatted-up Lil. But she lends her performance a surprising depth. While this is a film about coming to terms with the past, it’s not about transforming oneself to better fit other people’s images. Vic remains a bit of a dick, and Lil is still as insulting as ever, but they are both better people for having known each other, accepting their roles and changing their attitudes to the people around them.

The weakest moments in Dog Years are those scenes where Reynolds addresses his past self directly, in scenes from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance. While those scenes will be recognizable to most film fans, the use of green screen and the limited dialogue comes off as more hokey than moving, a weird attempt to bring the older and younger Reynolds into dialogue with himself.

Dog Years doesn’t completely escape cliché, try as it might. But it has warmth, and heart, a celebration of the meaning of stardom to new generations, and the willingness to embrace the past, understand it, and then be able to let it go. It’s a sweet film, and maybe that’s all that it really needs to be.

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