The voice abides
THE HERO, drama, R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
The Hero rides the lean shoulders, the droopy mustache, the leathery hide, and above all, the deep, drawling baritone of veteran actor Sam Elliott with the easy, loping gait of an old cowhand on a trusty cayuse. To make sure we’re in on that hook from the beginning, writer and director Brett Haley launches the movie with a close-up of Lee Hayden (Elliott) in a recording studio, purring the tag line for a barbecue sauce commercial into a microphone. “That’s great, Lee,” says a voice from the control booth. “Could we try just one more?”
From there on, Haley walks us through a collection of clichés so familiar they could have sprung from a software program — a grizzled old actor down on his luck, estranged from his family, a terminal cancer diagnosis, a last lusty fling with a younger woman, and endless melancholy walks along the California coastline as the surf rolls in. The bet is that Elliott’s charm will hold it all together, and the bet pays off. The actor, whose career has consisted mostly of memorable second-banana roles (like the omniscient narrator who utters the line “The Dude abides” in The Big
Lebowski) — and who more recently has played the old flame to stars like Lily Tomlin (Grandma) and Blythe Danner (Haley’s I’ll See You in My
Dreams) — fills nearly every frame of this movie, and the role of star fits this career supporting actor like an old pair of boots.
Lee’s story is a little hard to figure out from the evidence here. He’s something of a legend from his career in old Westerns, but that seems to belong to a nostalgic past. Aside from the commercial voice-overs, the only offer crossing his agent’s desk is a Lifetime Achievement Award from a Western fan club. And yet his most famous movie — the eponymous Western The Hero, from which we see clips — features a Lee of current vintage.
The cancer diagnosis early in the movie propels Lee on a journey that he takes with a very good supporting cast that includes his ex-wife (Elliott’s real life wife Katharine Ross), his embittered daughter (Krysten Ritter), his pothead friend (Nick Offerman), and the beautiful woman half his age (Laura Prepon) who finds him irresistible.
A drug-fueled incident at the award dinner goes viral, offering Lee a reboot of his career. He auditions for an important role as an old man confronting his estranged daughter, and when we see him with his own daughter later on, the scene plays much like the audition. The Hero is an unabashedly self-referential movie, and a nice tribute to a veteran character actor getting his turn in the spotlight. — Jonathan Richards
Age cannot wither: Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott