Role of his life
Sam Elliott stars as himself, sort of
In The Hero, Sam Elliott plays a fictional actor/movie star who is aging and, superficially at least, resembles Sam Elliott. Those rather teasing resemblances play a minor role in the film as a whole, and Elliott is not the film’s only selling point and attraction. But his presence as the title character is the chief saving grace of this frisky little seriocomic romance.
Lee Hayden (Elliott) is a drawling cowboy type with an epic mustache and a wily look in his eye. Now in his 70s and still working, he’s had a long journeyman career in everything from blockbuster movies to TV commercials. But his one claim to lasting fame, his role as the cowboy hero of a mythic fantasy (also called The Hero), is now more than 30 years in the past.
When we first meet him, Hayden is grinding his way through repeated takes of a couple of sentences in a commercial for a brand of barbecue sauce. Next, his agent calls to say that, while no new offers of movie roles have turned up, an organization of nostalgic western movie fans wants to give him a lifetime achievement award at its upcoming convention. And soon after that, his doctor is telling him that the cancer in his lungs has most decidedly not gone into remission.
All that leads to some soul-searching, some last hurrahs, and a series of attempts to “reach out” and/or reconnect. The first person he turns to is his oldest friend and best buddy, a former actor named Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), who is even more down-at-the-heels than Hayden. But the most deeply fraught encounters are with women: Hayden’s thoroughly embittered daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and his calmly ambivalent ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, Elliott’s longtime spouse) on the family front, and a sultry stand-up comedian named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) in the realm of impromptu romance.
Elliott’s scenes with Offerman are the sharpest and most affecting in the film. The dueling come-hither gazes in the Elliott-Prepon scenes make for some of the film’s most entertaining (and beguiling) moments. The Elliott-Ritter scenes are particularly challenging as serious drama but not always to good effect. In her scenes with Elliott, Ross (who, once upon a time, was featured in both The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) seems inclined to keep things a bit too much under wraps.
Hayden’s gonzo antics and inspired improvisations at the awards ceremony are a particular high point for a film in which very little else is unexpected. Fortunately, there’s that charmingly quirky cast of players, and iconic Sam Elliott never had a better showcase than this one.