The Hero (Brett Haley, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A pleasant enough diversion, The Hero – starring Sam Elliott (Grandma) as Lee Hayden, an aging star of Westerns – nevertheless sinks into a mire of clichés from which it never quite escapes. Though Elliott delivers a compelling performance – one that he, at 72, seems born to play – the film rarely feels like more than a showcase for his talents. True, the supporting cast is strong, as well, but the writing is less so, and the mostly one-dimensional characters exist as if products of Hayden’s mind, reflecting his wants, needs and darkest fears more than any active volition of their own. They are but constructs of the script, and what the movie needs is less narrative convention and more inventive drama.
Hayden is dying. Or rather, he has pancreatic cancer – one of the worst kinds one can get – with little hope for anything resembling long-term survival. And so, it’s time for a lifetime’s worth of reckoning and self-recrimination, as he attempts to make sense of his now defunct career and shattered family. Divorced, he is estranged from his daughter, and can only fumble his way towards a rapprochement, not helped by the dual crutches of marijuana and alcohol on which he leans, heavily. His best friend – his only friend, at least as far as we can tell – is his drug dealer, a former child actor who co-starred in an ill-fated one-season TV series with the much older Hayden. Until, that is, he meets the much younger Charlotte – played, with her usual charming insouciance, by Laura Prepon (Orange Is the New Black) – who, though approximately in the same age range as his daughter, quickly becomes the center of his desperate attention.
Indeed, though I always love Prepon and find both her and Elliott perfect together, as performers, I deeply wish that writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) had avoided their coupling, as the world does not need another cinematic May-December romance. And though Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), as Jeremy – the drug dealer – is also enjoyable, his role never rises above its own stereotype. Even sadder is the wasted Katharine Ross (The Graduate) – Elliott’s real-life spouse – as the ex-wife, and Kristen Rytter (Jessica Jones) as the daughter, neither of whom are given much to do but look angry and bereft. As an aficionado of Westerns, I did appreciate Haley’s use of the genre for its recurring themes of yesteryears gone by, but he does not take full advantage of the potential visual iconography.
All those criticisms aside, Elliott makes it watchable. His weathered features and gravelly voice – so often used in supporting roles – here foregrounds the plight of a still vital man for whom time is slipping quickly away. He is, indeed, a true matinee idol, a hero of the screen, and lends enough of his aura to Haley’s The Hero to propel it forward to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, even one still stuck in the bog of its banal screenplay.