THE HERO (2017)
Director: Brett Haley
Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross
MPAA Rating: (for drug use, language and some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 6/9/17 (limited); 6/16/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 15, 2017
We know the voice before we see the face. It's the smooth, down-to-earth baritone of Sam Elliott. After some shots of the California coast, The Hero officially opens with the voice against a black screen. What the voice says will sound a bit familiar, too: It's selling something—barbeque sauce, specifically, proclaiming that it's a piece of chicken's "perfect pardner," because no cowboy hocking barbeque sauce would dare say "partner."
The role of Lee Hayden, a washed-up actor of various Westerns on the big and small screen, was clearly written for Elliott, himself an iconic presence of cowboy pictures both big and small—albeit far from washed-up. He's become more in recent decades—a notable character actor capable of stealing away an entire movie in even the briefest of appearances.
It's the voice, yes, and it's the mustache, too. More importantly, though, it's his manner. Even in his early 70s, he still stands like a towering cowboy. His voice is calm but firm. What we've gotten from him lately—and especially in his performance here—is his willingness to let that iconic presence crack. The look softens a bit. The voice quivers slightly. It doesn't take much for him to show an oasis of depth beneath his screen persona, because that persona is so concrete from just a glance at him.
Co-writer/director Brett Haley knows this fact. Lee is an actor who has reduced to voice-over work in commercials. His agent never calls him. Even when he was being offered roles, Lee is only proud of one of his movies. It was a Western, naturally, in which the title announced his character and, by extension, the actor himself as the quintessential "hero."
Lee has never reclaimed the glory of that movie, which was 40 years ago. His age is on the wrong side of the calendar of his life for anything to change much, so he's frustrated and slightly irritable. The only thing keeping Lee from really giving in to despair seems to be the joint that he smokes on the drive home to a ranch house in the hills.
This is a sad, familiar story, and with Elliott playing a professionally defeated variation of himself, the movie seems to hold plenty of promise. This kind of simple, observational drama, though, isn't enough for Haley and co-screenwriter Marc Basch. Soon enough, Lee's life becomes a personal and professional minefield of regret, potential opportunities wasted by self-sabotage, romance, long-standing familial troubles, and the threat of creeping mortality.
At a certain point, it becomes clear that, while the role was written for Elliott, the story itself might as well have featured any actor of a certain age. Change the type of movie for which the character was known, and it could have been someone else plugged into the same story. Alter the group giving Lee a lifetime achievement award, and the same thing goes. Adjust the genre of in which the character's dreams of death are set, and it's the same story.
We're watching a pretty generic and formulaic melodrama unfold. The only element giving the material any weight is our appreciation for Elliott—as a presence and in the unbridled sincerity of his performance.
Lee is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the first act. He doesn't tell anyone, including his best friend/pot dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman), who appeared with Lee in a short-lived TV show. He also keeps the news from his ex-wife Valerie (Katharine Ross), a photographer with a show opening soon. He could tell his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), but when he finally works up the courage to visit her, he hasn't talked to her in years. He definitely doesn't tell Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a friend of Jeremy who's a few decades his junior, because he has other things on his mind when he's around her.
The screenplay is filled with characters, all of whom serve one of two purposes: to reinforce the chances that Lee has lost and the ones that he currently risks losing. This is a busy story, in spite of its relative simplicity, and it's also a repetitive one. Lee could save his relationship with Lucy, except that he decides to get high on the night they're supposed to meet for dinner. He could have something meaningful with Charlotte, but he's insecure about his age (It doesn't help that she's a stand-up comedian, whose act is all about how old her new boyfriend is). He could take advantage of the fact that his acceptance speech at the award ceremony becomes an internet sensation, but the role for which he lands an audition is too personal for him—all about a father reuniting with a daughter.
The shadow of illness is, oddly, an easy out for Haley and Basch, who only confront the idea of death from a distance, through a series of dreams. Otherwise, it comes across as a cynical excuse for adding more drama to a story that very well might not need it. All of the complications turn The Hero, which begins as a personal and specific study of Lee, into something far too impersonal and generalized.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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