SIFF Film Review – The Hero
In director Brett Haley’s new film The Hero, which featured at the Seattle International Film Festival, Sam Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a 71 year-old actor at the end of his career. He’s still doing commercials – and with that voice why wouldn’t he – but nothing else seems to be on the radar for him. He spends his days smoking pot with his drug-dealing neighbor Jeremy (Nick Offerman) and sabotaging his relationship with daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Three things converge though to shake up his life: he receives a life-time achievement award from a Western appreciation society he has never heard of, his doctor tells him he has pancreatic cancer, and he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a much younger woman who displays a marked romantic interest in him. Further complications arise when the speech he gives at the awards ceremony goes viral, and job opportunities come rolling in. Just when things seem to be winding towards the end, new avenues open for Lee, and he must decide what kind of life he wants to have and who he wants to be during the time he has left.
I really like Sam Elliott and am super stoked to see him starring in a movie this late in his career. I wish it had been a much better film, but I certainly don’t blame him for doing this one being that it is tailor made. One of the threads running through The Hero is that Lee is a decent actor who has kept working, but really only has one film made 40 years ago that he looks back on with pride. Reviewing Elliott’s career, there are a few really good movies there, but it’s mostly television. (I am not dissing TV, but until recently it hasn’t had the same prestige as film.) I’ve always enjoyed watching him, but never really thought of him as more than a competent actor. He’s iconic for his voice and his mustache, not his mad skills. But lately, that idea has changed for me. I saw him in 2015’s Grandma with Lily Tomlin and was very moved by his performance. He’s a better actor now than he’s ever been. He’s also really good here, but unfortunately the script isn’t enough to support his performance.
I really don’t care for coming-of-age stories – especially when that person is 71. Because that is what this film is really about. Lee learns that the world is not really all about him – oh wait he doesn’t really learn that at all. He is still as monstrously self-centered at the end of the film as he is in the beginning, shown by the fact that he tells his ex-wife (Katharine Ross – who I would like to see in a lot more movies, thank you very much) he has cancer at the opening for her new art show. He could not have possibly waited until the next morning so she could enjoy her moment. He also doesn’t want to reconcile with his estranged daughter for her sake, but for his own. When he’s not zoned out from taking drugs, he’s just kind of a low-key asshole who really doesn’t change much over the course of the story. And for the record, just because you mention that the age difference between Lee (71) and Charlotte (Laura Prepon is 37) is weird, it doesn’t actually make it any less jarring. I absolutely believe that Sam Elliott could hit that, but Hollywood has a long history of casting older men with way younger women, and it’s not less annoying just because the gap is mentioned in the film. I don’t think the story would have suffered if a 50 year-old woman had been cast. It smacks of male wish fulfillment, as does a lot in this film. WHICH SUCKS, because Sam Elliott is great in this, as is almost everyone else.
On a side note, just because I think it’s interesting, the use of cell phones in this movie stood out to me. It felt like the phone was almost another character, and I have decidedly mixed feelings about that. Cell phones are everywhere and it should feel natural for movie characters to be playing with them as much as we do in really life. Except it was kind of annoying. Movies aren’t really life (there are a lot of things that make sense in them that would never wash in reality, and vice versa) and watching people look stuff up on their phone was kind of boring. I guess it’s a new way to get exposition across, but it didn’t work for me.
I’m sorry to sound so grumpy about this movie; I really love Sam Elliott and the rest of the cast. It just felt kind of pointless and self-indulgent. I wanted to see Lee change, and with the exception of having a hot new girlfriend, I didn’t see that. Movies don’t have to be about growth, but if they aren’t, the plot has to be a lot more exciting than this to justify spending the time. But for Sam Elliott lovers who want to watch him be awesome for 90 minutes, there is definitely some pleasure to be had here.