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After Jeff Bridges won his Oscar for Crazy Heart, the “elderly celebrity wistfully chases his former glory,” film is practically its own genre. It certainly serves as a way to bring a seasoned actor who’s been flying under the radar a chance to shine. This brings us to Sam Elliott. While the Tombstone star has certainly gotten his fair share of work, he hasn’t been at the forefront of something for a while. Director Brett Haley is eager to give Elliot that chance, creating a complex, if archetypal, character for him.
We follow Lee Hayden (Elliot), a vintage western superstar who has since been stuck doing commercials for barbecue sauce with his silky smooth voice. He’s eager to work but the roles just aren’t coming in. Things do start to pick up when he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a young stand-up comedian looking for a suitor who’s a bit more advanced than the thirty-something set. When a date to an award show caps off with Lee giving a spirited speech that goes viral, fame starts to come back in the picture, with our cowboy discovering that he’s not as ready to be back in the spotlight as he thought.
Elliot’s performance is the obvious make or break factor here and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. His soulful turn is full of warmth, heartbreak, and humor. We see how broken and lonely Lee has become but we also see why people give him the time of day. His reserved, old-school charm is as alluring to us as it is to Prepon, who is equally strong here as a woman who is a bit beyond and a bit bellow where she should be in life. For a romance that could easily come off a little creepy, there’s a great deal of chemistry between these two. Nick Offerman and Krysten Ritter also score as Lee’s best friend and estranged daughter, even if Ritter isn’t given quite enough screen-time for her emotional arc to land.
Haley’s direction is rather reserved, instead opting to focus on the screenplay written by him and Marc Basch. On paper, the characters and structure here feel a little trite. We’ve seen most of these beats in a lot of indie dramedies dealing with age and nostalgia. The ticking time bomb of disease. The daughter who feels abandoned. The girlfriend who fills the lost old man’s heart again. You know the drill. What makes it all work is the genuine empathy Haley has for these characters. He’s not just using them as puzzle pieces to prop Elliot up. They each have a ton of personality and have funny things to say. The tragic elements aren’t dealt with in a heavy-handed manner. They’re just unfortunate pieces of Lee’s life that need to be addressed before he finally does check out.
There’s really only one strange narrative device that doesn’t work. The Hero refers to the film of the same name that made Lee a star and there are intermittent dream sequences where our older Lee will re-enact moments from it. Haley seems to think that they further the idea of Lee having his life defined by this one movie but it never really registers. If anything, they’re such generic western set-ups that you wonder why it’s not playing next to re-runs of Hee Haw. Since the film runs barely ninety minutes, these little interludes seem thrown in more to pad out the length than anything else.
Much like his character, it feels as though Elliot really hasn’t gotten his due throughout his career. He’s had a run of solid supporting roles without really getting a showcase for what he’s capable of. While The Hero might not be a strong enough movie to land Elliott any awards consideration, it will hopefully show the studios that he does have a lot left in him. The film itself is as understated as the western stars it so clearly idolizes. Always consistent but never quite breaking out into anything different. More style would’ve likely sunk it the other way, though, so perhaps this is a film that was destined to be solid if unspectacular.