Way out west, there was this fella I wanna tell ya about. Goes by the name of Sam Elliott. At least that was the handle his loving parents gave him, but many people, especially women – and not just older women but women of all ages with discerning tastes – would call him “The Sexiest Man Alive.” See, this Elliot, he’d never call himself “The Sexiest Man Alive.” Because boiling down one of the most interesting actors to grace the silver screen down to a worthless tabloid moniker doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Watching Sam Elliott work over the past forty years, on the silver screen and on television, in a wide variety of genres, has been one of the great joys of entertainment, and never has he had a role quite like Lee Hayden, leading a movie quite like “The Hero.”
(This movie was screened in early April 2017 as part of the 60th San Francisco Film Festival, and opens in Los Angeles and New York on June 9th before opening wider throughout June and July 2017.)
In modern-day Los Angeles, Lee Hayden lives a quiet and mostly complacent life. With his handsome features and deep, golden voice, lee was once a star in movies and television, but lately he can only get the occasional gig spitting out cheesy tag lines for barbecue sauce commercials. From time to time, he gets together with Jeremy (the always welcomed Nick Offerman), a former co-star on a short-lived television Western, at Jeremy’s place, where they watch old Buster Keaton movies as they enjoy a little recreational marijuana. Lee has a not-very-good relationship with his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, still Mrs. Elliott in real life), and a non-existent relationship with their daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). When he discovers he has an incurable form of cancer, Lee tries to take stock in his life, with often disastrous results. But when a chance meeting at a taco truck with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a comedienne whom Lee previously met when she as over to Jeremy’s getting some drugs for herself, leads to a potential romance, he discovers that maybe life outside the spotlight wasn’t all so bad after all.
Film roles that are written for specific actors can and have run the gamut from the divine to the ludicrous. Writer/director Brett Haley, who worked with Mr. Elliott worked on 2015’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (which got some good reviews and did some decent business for then-neophyte distributor Bleecker Street Films), felt compelled to write this role and this film specifically for the iconic actor. Now, to some, it might not be much of a stretch for Sam Elliott to play a faded Western actor. Westerns and cowboy characters have been his stock in trade for many years. Yet, Sam Elliott hasn’t faded at all. He’s been as busy the past twenty years as any actor, moving effortlessly from television to movies, from little indie movies like “The Hero” to superhero movies (remember, he played Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in Ang Lee’s pre-MCU version of “The Hulk”), in starring roles and recurring roles and guest roles and voiceover roles, and in Westerns and dramas and comedies and romances. In a movie like “The Big Lebowski,” he only needs to show up a couple of times and still have an incredible impact on the overall story. In a movie overflowing with rich characters, his unnamed narrator sets the tone for the film instantly. A good actor with good material can do that, and Mr. Haley has provided Mr. Elliott with that all-too-rare beast. I won’t go as far as to say he’ll finally earn his first Academy Award nomination, because the Academy has fickle tastes and seems to forget almost every movie released before November, but if there ever was a chance to for that to happen, this would be the role he’d get it for.
At 93 minutes, “The Hero” moves briskly and efficiently, with nary a moment wasted or unneeded. Yet, a part of me wishes it were longer, because of its embarrassment of riches in the acting department. Working together for the first time on-screen in more than a quarter century, Mr. Elliott and Ms. Ross have always been magic when they’ve shared the screen, and their few short scenes together here were not enough. I can admit that’s pure greed speaking, and I don’t care. Same with Mr. Offerman. We already know from “Parks and Recreation” that he and Mr. Elliott have a great camaraderie together, and again I greedily wanted more. Even Ms. Prepon, whom I have never really felt much affinity for throughout her career, shines here.
If there are any faults for me to the movie, it’s a matter of nitpicking thanks to my being a native of Los Angeles, and one that I suspect I may be incorrect about anyway. It seems that Lee may live somewhere in the Hollywood Hills and he definitely loves to spend time on the beaches around Malibu, and it seems that Lee can get from one point to the other in a matter of minutes, when anyone who has spent any time in the City of Angels knows you can’t get from Hollywood to the coastline in anything less than forty-five minutes to an hour anytime when most normal people are awake. But let that be an indication of just how good this movie is. The only fault I can find with it is, potentially, travel-related.