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 Some Heroic Acting

Sam Elliott
Sam Elliott
The Orchard
 93 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Brett Haley
Starring: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon 
The Hero

When one of my all-time favorite television series, Justified, limped its way through a disappointing fifth season before announcing that the upcoming sixth season would be its finale, I worried for a while that the show might have exhausted its creativity in the first few years and was going to coast to the finish line. Then, I heard that Sam Elliott had signed to play the main villain in that final season, and I knew everything would be all right—and it was.


Sam Elliott is an American acting legend, a man whose charm and sex appeal have grown over the years and who still, even in his 70’s, can command the big or small screen, and he has brought those charms to bear in recent years on a number of older actresses, including Blythe Danner, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Debra Winger. In fact, it was his co-starring role with Danner in the 2015 drama I’ll See You in My Dreams that brought him together with that film’s writer/director Brett Haley and led the director to craft a project specifically for Elliott, The Hero.


Elliott is the Hero, in more ways than one in this movie. He plays Lee Hayden, an aging actor known and beloved to many for various roles in Westerns, including his one signature role in a film called The Hero. Now, however, as Hayden enters his 70’s, Westerns are dead, and any acting roles are hard to find. So, he makes a living doing voiceover commercials (the opening scene showcases his struggles to find what the director thinks is the right touch for a barbecue sauce commercial) and receiving an occasional career achievement award.


Hayden is cordially estranged from his ex-wife (Katherine Ross, Elliott’s real life wife), and not-so-cordially estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter). He spends much of his time smoking pot and reminiscing with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former co-star on a TV series who now serves as Hayden’s drug dealer. Hayden seems content to live out his remaining years in this manner when two things happen that shake up his very existence.


First, he meets stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), another client of Jeremy’s. She’s half his age and has a thing for older men, so he starts a relationship with her that may blossom into something more serious. The second development in Hayden’s life is not nearly as pleasant, as he receives a surprise diagnosis from his doctor that he has advanced, hitherto undetected cancer and has a poor prognosis. Ironically, shortly after receiving this news, Hayden’s career prospects take a distinct turn for the better, as an offbeat acceptance speech he gives at an awards banquet goes viral, causing casting directors to approach him again for better roles.


Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch wrote The Hero specifically for Sam Elliott, and, realistically, it’s hard to picture any other current actor in the role. He is Lee Hayden, or, more accurately, Lee Hayden is Sam Elliott after life has thrown a few extra curveballs his way. From the very first scene, in which Elliott’s unmistakable bass drawl does take after take of that ridiculous barbecue sauce commercial, he inhabits the character with well worn ease.


In most movies involving an affair between a man Elliott’s age and a woman Laura Prepon’s age, unless there is an obvious financial or power factor involved, the audience often has trouble accepting that the premise is anything other than a screenwriter or director’s fantasy. Here, however, as evidenced in the clip below, it’s quite easy to picture the attraction. Indeed, in one of the better sequences in the movie, Lee Hayden attends an awards banquet in his honor and easily flirts with and dazzles many of the women in attendance. For a man who is reluctant to attend an event to receive an honor he clearly thinks he doesn’t deserve, Hayden quickly warms up to the audience adoration.


The best scene in The Hero, however, is the most heartbreaking, and the one that may earn Elliott an Oscar nomination. Hayden auditions for a part in a Hunger Games-styled science fiction epic as the father of the lead character, and he completely falls apart as he tries to complete the readthrough of the scene, despite the director obviously trying to help him. At that moment, the weight of all his problems, family, career, and health, finally hit him, and he can’t cope with it.


It would be nice to report that the rest of The Hero is at the same level as Elliott’s work, but it’s not. It’s simply one of many movies about an aging man struggling to deal with his own mortality (Bob Fosse handled this material much better 39 years ago in All That Jazz). Lee Hayden’s failed family life is given too short a shrift, with Krysten Ritter being reduced to only a couple of scenes in a role that cried for more. Hayden’s romance with Charlotte is perplexing; at first, her entire character seems little more than an excuse to set up a scene in which she appears at a comedy club and embarrasses him by talking about their sex life. Later, the pairing seems more genuine, as Haley succeeds in opening her character up by having her recite poetry to Hayden.


The best, and most alive, relationship in the movie is the one between Hayden and Jeremy, who obviously pass many a pot-fueled day mellowing out together. Both men have accepted their status in life and the status of their careers, and neither is judgmental about the other. It’s a friendship fueled by the knowledge of each other’s failings and the realization that it doesn’t matter to either of them. Indeed, were it not for Hayden’s health issues, the movie could simply have puttered along, rather enjoyably for viewers, for a good bit longer.


Indeed, spending 90 minutes puttering along with Sam Elliott isn’t the worst use of one’s time, and The Hero is never dull or annoying because Elliott is always there. Although this type of material has been done many times before, Elliott gives it renewed vitality by his very presence in this role. But there’s only so far an actor can take relatively minor material, and audiences will leave the theater wishing that he’d had something just a bit better to work with. Sam Elliott is an acting hero, but The Hero doesn’t quite achieve that status.

Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon meet for the first time in this scene.

Read other reviews of The Hero:


The Hero (2017) on IMDb