The has-been movie star has just dropped by his favorite weed supplier when there’s a knock at the door. The other customer strolls in, and gives the old man a wary double-take.
“Don’t worry, he’s cool,” the dealer says. And since the fellow he’s talking about is that growling, granite monument to Western cinema, Sam Elliott, well hell — we agree. Yeah, he’s cool — “Big Lebowski/Up in the Air/Tombstone” iconic cool.
In “The Hero” Elliott plays a faded star coming to grips with his legacy, his “lifetime achievement.” He might never get another decent job, not a film as iconic as his best work, a Western titled “The Hero.” He might never reconcile with the daughter (Krysten Ritter) he left behind when he divorced her mother (Katharine Ross of “Butch Cassidy and thee Sundance Kid,” married to Elliott since the ’80s).
He’ll probably never buy more than an ounce of grass from his one-time co-star, now handy neighborhood pot dealer (Nick Offerman, delightfully dry).
But Lee Hayden needs to start thinking about such things, take stock. Because his doctor has told him “I’m afraid I don’t have good news.”
Brett Haley’s film captures Elliott in all his majesty, his twinkle dimming as he casts his eyes out over the mountains beyond his house or the rocky beach down the hill.
Lee can’t quite bring himself to tell the dealer/pal, the ex-wife/artist (Ross) or his daughter. “I’ve got some news,” he begins…then mentions a movie he’s about to make.
But the only movie he’s making is that Western from long ago, where he’s an anti-heroic “Hero” once and forever.
Still, there are the attentions of the too-dang-young-for-him fellow cannabis client. Laura Prepon of “That ’70s Show” and “Orange is the New Black,” one of the few actresses tall enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with Elliott, is Charlotte, a poetry-quoting stand-up comic who will flirt and yes, go with Lee to his Western Appreciation Society awards banquet.
She’ll slip a little “fairy dust” (Molly) into his drink, at his invitation, and end up in his bed, even though he can’t figure out what her “deal” is. And she’ll recite a little Edna St. Vincent Millay to him to help him cope with his decline.
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”
Prepon, Haley (who also directed Elliott in “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and Elliott never let the film turn maudlin. The opening shot, of Lee voicing-over a BBQ sauce commercial, is a sly way to connect the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” actor to this somewhat on-the-nose role. Hollywood hasn’t had much use for men’s men like Elliott in recent years.
Ritter has one moving not-quite-reconciliation scene, and Offerman borrows Elliott’s twinkle for his role.
But there’s just enough melodrama here to rub the edge right off the picture. Lee “goes viral,” just like “The Wimpy Kid” and half a dozen other movie characters this year alone. Lazy “deus ex machina” device.
The movie within the movie, the one Lee remembers, has none of the feel or pictorial qualities of a “classic.” And we never really do figure out what Charlotte’s “deal” is.
But Elliott gives the entire enterprise an elegiac quality, letting us revel in this funereal final hurrah. Let’s hope this bushy-browed ol’ cowpoke gets a few more shots at reminding us just what he can do, and hasn’t really been allowed to nearly enough over the decades. His kind of “Hero” is a rare thing on screen in this day and age.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, language and some sexual content
Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross
Credits: Directed by Brett Haley, written by Marc Basch, Brett Haley. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:37