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We get a few of these every year: You know the type, the Solitary Mans and Crazy Hearts, the ones about aging white men who have tortured relationships with their families, and that happen to also be perfect comeback vehicles/tributes to their stars. It’s a great chance for both image rehabilitation and deconstruction, but very few of them every transcend that year’s award season (a huge notable exception to this rule is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and that may because of its defiance of the tropes of these trends). Brett Haley, director of surprise smash hit I’ll See You in My Dreams, is back with another feature about getting older and mortality, the Sam Elliott-led character study The Hero. It’s very much a play at the same kind of market, and it’s pretty good while you’re watching it.
Lee Hayden, a once-famous Western actor who can’t get any work these days aside from doing the odd ad voiceover, gets some terrible news from his doctor after a routine exam: He’s got pancreatic cancer, and there’s a significant chance he won’t survive the year. Understandably, this diagnosis rocks Lee to his core, and he can’t bring himself to tell any of the people around him: His ex-wife (Katharine Ross), his resentful daughter (Krysten Ritter), or his pot dealer (Nick Offerman). Instead, he tells them he’s planning on making another movie, one that’ll really amaze them, and chooses to privately freak out about his (potential) impending decline and death. One day, he runs into Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a comedian he met at his dealer’s house, at a taco stand and they hit it off. And as Lee comes to terms with his diagnosis, he has to look back at his past and his future and decide whether or not it’s really all worth it.
Much of the genuine joy in the film comes from just watching the characters hang out and riff off of one another, as when you boil down the essence of each of them they’re all playing types. Haley knows how to cast a movie, and he gives Elliott the right kind of people to bounce off of. Offerman, as Elliott’s drug dealer, isn’t given much to do, and it’s as if Haley just told him to play himself, but his charm still shines when he’s riffing with his friend over a joint and Chinese food. Ritter’s barely in the movie, given the same tired “estranged daughter” role that people like Evan Rachel Wood mastered, but she’s compelling enough in her few scenes to come away well. Prepon was the wild card in this cast, if you haven’t seen Orange is the New Black, but she’s fine, and genuinely tries to do something different with her archetype, endowing her character with a wizened joie-de-vivre that separates her from other May-December manic pixie dream girl types.
It’s Elliott who makes the whole damn thing work, though, and even when he’s underwritten or given little to do he can just charm you into making you consummately entertained. He single-handedly saves Haley’s mediocre script and works gorgeous wonders with it. It’s a goddamn mystery why no one thought to cast him in other kinds of pictures, and Elliott should most definitely seek out more parts like this. A scene where Lee gives a speech at a society of Western fans while on Molly is wonderfully out-of-persona for the tough guy (he’s all grins and goody dancing, gleefully embarrassing a woman in the crowd by giving her his awards). He’s totally lovable in the role, and that’s the reason his subplot with Ritter doesn’t go over well enough — he’s just too damn nice to be capable of the sort of neglectful cruelty their backstory implies. His relationship with Prepon is significantly more interesting, and they have an easy rapport throughout the majority of the film, until the plot clumsily dictates that they have a well-timed rough patch.
As solid as the first two acts are, the movie awkwardly stumbles into its third, with the kind of manipulative out-of-character bullshit coming in order to give The Hero its falling action, and finishes poorly, as it suffers heavily from Return of the King syndrome (“how can we choose just one ending?”), but Haley’s film never stops being watchable, mainly because of Elliott’s lovely performance. There’s an excellent scene right around that time where his character is invited to audition for a YA Sci-Fi franchise starter, and he goes over his lines for it with Offerman. He imbues the corny dialogue typical of something like the Divergent series with honest-to-god pathos, and it’s utterly devastating, the long-buried emotions he’s had about his daughter boiling over the surface and coming out hard in the material. It brings Offerman’s character close to tears, and it’s hard not to imagine most of the audience reacting in the same way. That’s the magic quality of a good marriage of actor and material, and The Hero, for its faults, uses its lead to entrance and charm.