The Hero is at its best when it drifts through Lee’s pain and rich inner life, regardless of whether mining his foibles or comedy or tragedy.
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) has been making Westerns for over 40 years, but now he pays the bills using the low timbre of his unmistakable voice to sell barbecue sauce on the radio. It’s a reasonable enough existence. He calls his agent hoping for new scripts, settling for scraps. When he’s not working, he’s smoking tons of weed with his former co-star/current dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). They get blazed, eat Chinese food and watch old Buster Keaton movies.
Through Jeremy, Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a hard partying stand-up comic who doesn’t care that he’s older than her father. Their romance has a strained credibility, feeling a little like a protracted fantasy, but it’s sweet and fascinating and far more entertaining than it is mildly creepy. All told, it’s the makings of a fun, quirky little character study. This, it should be noted, is the only film in 2017 where you can see Sam Elliott gone off the molly for an extended sequence.
Except before all of this, Lee discovers he’s dying of cancer. He’s had haunting, beautifully shot dreams playing on the cinematic memories he’s created throughout his career. Now he’s got to reconnect with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) before he croaks and play out some pretty tired dramatic beats from a handful of other similarly themed films. It’s a shame, too, because this really could have been something special.
Writer-director Brett Haley previously worked with Elliott on I’ll See You in My Dreams and was inspired to create a vehicle for the legendary actor to showcase just how talented he’s always been. In that regard, the film is a rousing success, providing a functional framework for Elliott to flex his chops as a leading man. His weathered, weary Lee is the perfect postmodern cowboy, rolling his own smokes filled with herb instead of tobacco. That husky drawl and those captivating eyes make him own every minute of screen time, and his chemistry with Prepon and Offerman is electric.
The problem comes from the basic premise of using his mortality to push the story forward. This is the rare instance where a more meandering, “indie” pace and plot style might have resulted in a more meaningful film. It would mean we could skip the rote, impossible to give a shit about storyline with Lee’s daughter. Ritter does the best with what she’s given, which is literally nothing. It feels like a shadow of a similar story from The Wrestler and, you know, a dozen other flicks. Lee’s relationship with his ex-wife is at least aided by her being played by his real life spouse Katharine Ross, but the narrative that’s supposed to be the beating heart of the film is just inert.
But there’s one scene where it works and Ritter is nowhere to be found. Lee is auditioning for a big budget sci-fi flick based on a young adult novel and he’s running through his sides with Jeremy. The scripted dialogue he’s rehearsing perfectly echoes all the pent up frustration he feels for being an embarrassment of a father. It’s the clip they’re sure to play at the Oscars next year should Elliott receive a well-deserved Best Actor nomination for this role.
The problem is it only works because it keeps the focus on Lee and his regrets, not shoehorning in an incomplete, unsatisfying plotline with a female character who may as well be a cardboard stand-in. The Hero is at its best when it drifts through Lee’s pain and rich inner life, regardless of whether mining his foibles or comedy or tragedy. If Haley wanted the film to explore his family so much, he should have made the effort to make them as fully realized as his lead.