The actor with the rustic, dry-aged voice takes a rare starring role but ‘The Hero’ can’t do him justice
With his iconic push broom mustache, full head of shining silver hair and his low rumble, deeply masculine voice, Sam Elliott is a story unto himself.
He is a story that is better than “The Hero,” which casts Elliott as an aging actor coming to grips with his life. “The Hero” gets a lot of mileage out of the myth of Sam Elliott, an actor who, like Morgan Freeman, has seemingly been a wise old man forever. It’s a rich, meaty role he can really sink his teeth into, or drink up like a full-bodied sarsaparilla. But the script around him doesn’t do Elliott or the character justice, and is a missed opportunity at a late-in-life comeback role for the one-time Western star.
Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a 71-year-old actor whose glory days are in the past. He now spends his days doing soulless voiceover work for barbecue sauce commercials, getting mileage out of that drawling voice (in a nifty parallel, Elliott himself is the voice of Coors Banquet). He also logs calls to his agent, who doesn’t have any parts for him, but lets him know there’s a Western appreciation society that wants to honor him with a lifetime achievement award. “Lifetime?” Hayden asks, mortality creeping in.
Hayden’s other pastime is smoking pot with his drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman, another actor whose low-pitched voice precedes him), a former actor with whom he worked on a Western series a few decades earlier. While lounging on Jeremy’s couch, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and after exchanging flirtatious banter the two take a liking to one another. This being Hollywood (and a story about Hollywood, at that), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two pair up, despite the fact that Lee is literally double her age.
That’s not all that’s happening in Lee’s life: He’s also received a damning cancer diagnosis and is staring down a dark reality. He decides he needs to start living, and he makes an effort to shore up his relationship with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter).
Writer-director Brett Haley, who also cast Elliott in the 2015 romance “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is clearly interested in the iconography of Elliott, in exploring the lines in his face and the depths of his being. He gets a committed performance from Elliott, who is used to knocking out small supporting roles and character parts in movies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Up in the Air.” It’s rare he gets to take center stage, and “The Hero” makes a good case for placing him front and center.
It’s too bad, then, that “The Hero” languishes. Much of the problem comes from the Charlotte character, a stand-up comedian (she acts nothing like a stand-up before revealing her vocation) who buries Lee in her act for no reason other than script contrivances, and the movie doesn’t know how to handle her left-field betrayal. And if there’s never another film where a 70-something actor hooks up with a 30-something actress, it will still be too soon.
There are also issues when Lee goes to pick up his lifetime achievement award. He gets high with Charlotte beforehand and video of his speech “goes viral,” and Haley can’t figure out what to do with Lee’s supposed sudden burst of online fame. (The vapid digital age catch-all of “going viral” was also lamely used in this year’s “The Comedian,” and is becoming a go-to for filmmakers who don’t know how to handle aging characters in a shifting media landscape that has passed them by.)
Just by virtue of showing up, Sam Elliott brings with him a lot to the table. There are depths to explore in his eyes, caverns to mine in his soul. “The Hero” begins that journey but doesn’t see it through, but hopefully another filmmaker takes the plunge. There’s a hero in there waiting to take a bow.
Rated R: for drug use, language and some sexual content
Running time: 93 minutes