June 14, 2017 at 1:44 p.m.
THE HERO (2017)
Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross
Directed by Brett Haley
Sam Elliott is sensational as an aging actor who catches a second wind in the best performance of his career. Known for his husky voiceover in The Big Lebowski and memorable roles in Tombstone and Lifeguard, Elliott seems to mirror his real life in this beautifully directed film from Brett Haley who worked similar magic for Blythe Danner in 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams.
Before we even see Sam Elliott’s character Lee Hayden we hear his iconic baritone voice as he peddles Lone Star BBQ sauce “the perfect pard-ner for your chicken” while in a sound booth recording take after take. The scene summarizes Lee’s life at the moment as the aging actor is forced to take whatever work he can find. Known for his performance as the title character in a classic western called The Hero, Lee now spends most of his time in Malibu getting stoned with neighbor Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former costar-turned-drug dealer who loves to watch Buster Keaton films.
Laura Prepon, who got her start playing Donna on “That 70s Show” and is currently on “Orange Is the New Black,” plays a stand-up comedian named Charlotte who stops by Jeremy’s pad to score some Molly. This leads to a great scene where she meets Lee for the first time as he chills on the couch. There is instant chemistry between the two despite their 35-year age difference as Charlotte flirts with Lee. The best moments in that scene are the quite ones without dialogue as Haley uses the eyes of both actors to convey their sentiments.
The romance between Elliott and Prepon is handled realistically as Lee almost blows it by giving Charlotte the third degree over their age difference. I like how Haley and cowriter Marc Basch inject resistance into the screenplay rather than let the pieces fall easily into place. Charlotte digs older guys and Lee digs her but the two must struggle to make it work.
Things begin to pick up for 71-year old Lee, first the romance with Charlotte and then news comes that the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild run by Gary Babcock (a wonderful cameo by Max Gail) wants to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Lee is hesitant to accept the invite at first because he doesn’t want to be remembered for only playing a cowboy in The Hero, but the circumstances in his life cause him to rethink everything and he embraces his legacy. This is where Haley’s film, which was written specifically for Elliott, mirrors the actor’s real life. To many movie fans Elliott personifies the ideal cowboy thanks to his roles in various westerns including his standout performance as Virgil Earp in 1993’s Tombstone, but when you look at the actor’s complete body of work you’ll see that westerns only played a small role in his filmography. When Elliot was offered the role of The Stanger in The Big Lebowski he was excited about the character until he read that it was another cowboy. It was at that point that Elliott decided to embrace his recognition with the genre. The result was one of Elliott’s most memorable performances in the Coen Brothers film.
“The Hero” is a multilayered film that adds conflict to the narrative as Lee is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and must decide whether to seek treatment and extend his life for a few years or just let nature take its course. He attempts to put his life in order by reconciling with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) who felt like her father abandoned her during childhood because he was always away working, and his ex-wife Valarie (played by Elliott’s real-life wife Katherine Ross). The actual couple worked together on the set of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he was just an extra and she was the star opposite Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but it wasn’t until they appeared together in 1978’s The Legacy that they became introduced thanks to Elliott’s breakout role as Rick in the 1976 film Lifeguard.
Lee’s career also mirrors Elliott’s recent box office resurgence thanks to the terrific performances in Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams and his role opposite Lily Tomlin in Grandma, both released in 2015. Elliott’s next role is in the remake of “A Star is Born” opposite Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Many films have dealt with aging celebrities but Sam Elliott’s brilliant performance in “The Hero” blasts this film into the stratosphere. Don’t miss one of the best films of 2017.
Opens Friday June 16 at the River Oaks in Houston and June 23 at the Regal Arbor 8 in Austin.
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