Movie Review: The Hero
An aging cowboy actor looks for a final big role — and a chance to redeem his personal failures — in a drama that has many parallels with its memorable star
Starring: Sam Elliott, Nick Offerman, Laura Prepon
Directed by: Brett Haley
Running time: 93 minutes
By Jay Stone
If I didn’t know any better — and there is no reason to think I do — I might suspect that the story of Lee Hayden is the story of Sam Elliott. In the drama The Hero, we meet Lee intoning the words to a commercial (“Lone Star barbecue sauce. The perfect partner for your chicken”) into a microphone. We know that voice: the outdoorsy baritone that has given Elliott an extended career as the voice of Dodge trucks, Coors beer and other products whose appeal rests on the calm, macho authority of what a cowboy must sound like.
Lee (like Elliott) is a former actor in Westerns with one starring role in his past — for Lee, a duster called The Hero; for Elliott, the 1976 cult favourite The Lifeguard — still looking for work at the age of 71. Even his late-life shot at a big part, in a young adult sci-fi film in which he will play an intergalactic cowboy, is reminiscent of Elliott’s role in the unfortunate movie version of The Golden Compass (2007), in which he plays a character named (gulp) Lee.
To be fair, Elliott has a more successful career than Lee; indeed, he has become something of a geriatric sex symbol in such films as Grandma and See You In My Dreams. But if Elliott is a version of the no-nonsense American hero — the stranger at the bar in The Big Lebowski assuring us that the Dude abides — so Lee is a version of Elliott, the hero still searching for his grail.
Director and co-writer Brett Haley, the screenwriter of See You In My Dreams, has constructed the movie as an intimate love letter to Elliott, a fiction that nonetheless gives the actor a rare leading role. Elliott shows some signs of age — in profile, he’s beginning to look a bit like a flamingo — but he retains the long, lean body and quiet air of competence, not to mention that growl of command, and he turns the character into a believable, flawed man, rather than the collection of melodramatic tics that the screenplay produces.
But if Elliott is a version of the no-nonsense American hero — the stranger at the bar in The Big Lebowski assuring us that the Dude abides — so Lee is a version of Elliott, the hero still searching for his grail.
We meet Lee just as he is getting some bad news from his oncologist — we see him looking up the survival rates for pancreatic cancer on his cell phone, a device used so often in the movie that it should have its own dressing room — and then going off to see Jeremy (Nick Offerman), his drug dealer and a former co-star of an old TV show. Lee and Jeremy enjoy smoking marijuana and watching Buster Keaton films, and a little pancreatic cancer doesn’t stand in the way. Only in Los Angeles, you think, could a dope pusher and his septuagenarian customer share such a warm history.
At Jeremy’s house, he runs into Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who interests him because of her strikingly off-centre good looks. She’s also approximately half his age, and later, when The Hero throws Lee and Charlotte into bed together, we accept it because the movie addresses the rather revolting notion head on. Lee thinks she’s too young for him, and apparently so does she, but there they are. The romance is Haley’s gift to Elliott, and once you accept the attraction, they make a lovely couple, sharing drugs, irony and a sense of surprise at being in each other’s company.
Lee keeps his cancer a secret, but it inspires him to come to terms with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and his unhappy ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross). Fact and fiction mingle again here; Elliott is married to Ross in real life, and if you wanted to do another movie about an actor looking to resume a career, you could use her story: the co-star of two of the biggest movies of the late 1960s (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid) who did few movies after that.
Likewise, The Hero drifts in and out of reality — Lee’s dreams become a version of one of his old movies, the lonesome stranger on the run from the posse of, one supposes, life’s responsibilities — but Elliott keeps it grounded in the world of Hollywood ambition and family regrets. Just as Elliott has melded with Lee, so has Lee gradually turned into one of his own creations, a cowboy looking to right wrongs, some of them his own. There aren’t too many surprises here, but oh that voice.
THE EX-PRESS.CA, July 4, 2017
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