Sam Elliott is Western star Lee Hayden, a washed-up geriatric actor turned stoner who finds out that he has pancreatic cancer. After giving a inspiring speech while intoxicated, his career gets an unexpected reboot. Now, Lee has to decide whether he wants to succumb to cancer or give his life a fighting shot.
Sam Elliott should do more stuff.
You might be familiar with the archetypical Sam Elliott. The voice. The look. The moustache. In THE HERO, all of it is in full display and used to perfection. His character, Lee Hayden, has a signature voice, a swagger, and is a man’s man; he’s Sam Elliott. Yet the film takes plenty of shots at subverting those expectations, creating more than just an archetype.
The film acts as a bit calling card to Hollywood as a reminder to put Sam Elliott in stuff again. His performance is incredibly nuanced, both goofy manchild (something completely unexpected) as well as a man from a different generation confronting what it means to be a man. Instead of just playing up the fact that Sam Elliott has a deep voice, THE HERO managed to make Lee a multifaceted character. It’s a superb performance.
The rest of the movie…not so much on the superb.
The movie rests on you being entertained by watching Sam Elliott act. In that part, it works tremendously. But a big problem mechanically is that, if this was any other actor, the film would not work and you would not be engaged.
The empathy is assumed because you know Sam Elliott. It works; you probably know the voice. In an incredibly effective opening, we see Lee do an embarrassing voiceover for a barbecue sauce company.
We then watch what it would be like if we peered into Sam Elliott’s life. Lee Hayden is Sam Elliott. This character is functional only because of its voyeuristic tendency, which is not necessarily bad. It’s just not earned.
Pastiche as Emotional Substitute
The film is a pastiche of many other career-renaissance type movies (The Wrestler, Birdman, Lost in Translation, etc.). Some of the clichés we have include:
- Washed up actor given a second chance at acting
- Spurned ex-wife (Katherine Ross)
- Spurned daughter (Krysten Ritter)
- Much younger love interest (Laura Prepon)
These elements are functional, but they feel shoved in. None of the plot threads are given any sort of emotional catharsis, as the film ends rather abruptly in a scene far better than the film preceding it. There is a chilling thesis delivered in the final seconds that, due to the lack of emotional resolution in the film itself, literally left me to exclaim “What?!” (Much to the surprise of the other moviegoers who just, y’know, enjoy watching movies as opposed to trying to assert their dominance over them).
Knock Off That May-December Old Man Romance Crap, Man
I don’t care how great Sam Elliott is. He should’ve been knocking boots with his ex-wife and not a trophy in the form of MPDG Charlotte, who just happens to have a thing for older men.
She’s cool, confident, tatted, a little flawed, and likes Lee not because he’s an actor, but because of who he is. They just happen to have the same drug dealer (Nick Offerman, of all people) and they just happen to frequent the same taco joint, but have never met until just now.
I had a physical reaction whenever Charlotte and Lee first kissed (though I don’t remember what the reaction was exactly and I strive to be truthful in my writing). The film does no justification as to why Charlotte would like a man like Lee in the first place outside of just liking older men.
This would not have been as unpalatable if the world had more representation of old ladies bagging young studs (HAROLD AND MAUDE [and Bud Cort is no stud]). But it just unsettles me to award Sam Elliott with someone like Charlotte and not investigate the implications of a May-December romance outside of a couple pat lines of dialogue.
Skeeves me out. Do better, Hollywood.
Ultimately, the plot serves to let Elliott act more, which is nice. However, the story is more in service to his performance instead of his performance enhancing the story. So what we get is an okay film anchored by Sam Elliott acting the heck out of the material.
Your mileage with this movie is attached to how much you like Sam Elliott. I really like Sam Elliott, so I had a pretty darn good time, issues aside. If you want to watch the man act, THE HERO is definitely the movie for you.