Sam Elliott’s fictional career looks suspiciously like his real one in slow-going indie drama
The Hero (2017)
Directed by Brett Haley
Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman
In the glum, indie character study The Hero, iconic actor Sam Elliott stars as a well-aged cowboy actor—a role so perfectly cast, we can only assume it was written for him. Elliott’s Lee Hayden is more or less at the end of a successful, if not exactly stellar, career. People occasionally recognize him on the street, but aren’t sure where they’ve seen him. The Western genre has long since faded into the sunset, leaving Lee, his bushy mustache and his distinct voice to narrate the occasional barbecue sauce commercial. (“Lone Star Barbecue Sauce: The perfect partner for your chicken.”) His only recent gig is being nominated for a dreaded “lifetime achievement award.” Oh, and he just learned he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.
Lee makes the rounds, attempting to inform his loved ones. But he can’t quite muster up the courage to tell his ex-wife (Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross) and his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) of his impending mortality. Instead, he lies and tells everyone he’s working on a new movie project. He also does his best to escape reality by smoking a lot of pot with his best buddy/drug dealer (a somewhat oddly cast Nick Offerman). Unable to get his justifiably angry daughter to join him at the lifetime achievement banquet (thrown by an obscure Western movie appreciation society), Lee invites an attractive young woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) he meets at the drug dealer’s pad. Improbably, Lee and Charlotte hit it off, sparking a romantic affair—which provides more distraction than genuine comfort for our man Lee.
The love story presented here is an iffy one. Hollywood has a long and well-known problem providing May-December romances for its (male) senior citizens. At least The Hero has the good grace to acknowledge and discuss the nearly 40 year age gap between its two leads. Prepon, who’s done amazing work over on “Orange is the New Black,” proves she can go toe-to-toe with Elliott—no small task. And Elliott does dig deep here, giving a soulful performance as the man nearing the end of a life full to overflowing with regrets.
Writer-director Brett Haley’s only previous feature work was 2015’s little-seen dramedy I’ll See You in My Dreams—which featured Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott as a more age-appropriate couple. Haley, to his credit, clearly appreciates old-school Hollywood. But The Hero looks and feels like a standard-issue, micro-budgeted Sundance Film Festival kind of film. Like a lot of recent indies, it bills itself as a comedy-drama—yet if you can identify any mood other than morose, you’ve got a wider range of empathy than I do.
Haley is wise enough to acknowledge the clichés in his story (like the aged actor/young actress romance), but he can’t quite figure out how to break through them. Lee’s reticence to talk cancer with his family and his clumsy attempts to reconcile with his daughter after a lifetime of abandonment issues are about as deep as the script is willing to plumb. The Hero more than captures (though you might say exploits) Elliott’s gravel-voiced gravitas as an actor. There’s a world of thought going on in Lee’s eyes as he stares out at the rocky California coast off his lonely beach house—but the script doesn’t give him a lot to work with. Elliott, commanding in the tiniest role, does what he can to fill the gaps of Haley’s slim screenplay. (There can’t be more than 30 pages of dialogue in the entire thing.) In an attempt to stretch things out, Haley throws in a string of dreams/
A brief flash of narrative spark appears when Lee’s drugged-out speech at the lifetime achievement awards ceremony goes “viral,” and it looks like his career might be revived—but it’s the same out-of-touch plot device that drove Robert De Niro’s near-identical (right down to the May-December hookup) film The Comedian. Haley really should have spent more time fleshing out his main character (not to mention Charlotte and the others), giving us a little more context as to why we should be so all-fired sad about poor Lee’s plight. What aims to be a self-referential, self-deprecating, late-career look back at regret ends up as a frustratingly predictable film with an overqualified, underutilized star standing front-and-center.