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As any fan of The Big Lebowski — and countless other movie buffs — will tell you, Sam Elliott’s smoky, whiskey-soaked baritone is one of American cinema’s undervalued treasures. A reliable source of pleasure, that voice can also be something of a saving grace: It pretty much rescues Brett Haley’s Sundance dramatic competition entry The Hero, cutting clean through the film’s pile of clichés with its gruff feeling and wry, weary wit.
Elliott is best known for his cowboys (Tombstone, Big Lebowski) and bikers (Mask, Road House), but lately he’s had a mini-renaissance playing heart-throbby current and old flames to Blythe Danner in Haley’s last movie I’ll See You in My Dreams, Lily Tomlin in Grandma and Jane Fonda on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. It’s easy to see why: Tall and lean, with luxuriant silver hair and eyes that can gleam with either kindness or menace — and, again, that voice — he’s still sexy at 72.
In The Hero, unlike in most of his other projects, Elliott appears in nearly every frame as Lee Hayden, an over-the-hill Western film star whose cancer diagnosis prompts him to plan a comeback, reconnect with his estranged daughter and romance a younger woman. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before, with tweaks and variations, in movies like The Verdict, Tender Mercies, The Wrestler, Crazy Heart and many more.
Indeed, a sense of déjà vu clings to the film — from the succession of predictable narrative beats to some done-to-death visual motifs (the waves of the Pacific rolling in, for example) — threatening to choke the life out of it. But Haley (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marc Basch) has a smooth hand, a light touch and, above all, the sense to stick close to Elliott. The leading man slips into the role as if it were a favorite pair of old sneakers, delivering a performance of such gentle melancholy and unforced charisma that spending 90 minutes with him is painless, and sometimes pleasant.
When we meet Lee, he’s living off residuals (and the occasional barbecue sauce ad voiceover), spending much of his time holed up in his secluded Malibu home with a stiff drink and a fat joint. Accelerating what seems like a slow slide into depression is the news that a tumor doctors have found on his pancreas is malignant. But rather than schedule a potentially life-prolonging procedure, Lee goes to decompress with dealer/friend/former-co-star Jeremy (Nick Offerman).
That’s how Lee first encounters Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a 35-ish stand-up comic who comes to Jeremy’s for the drugs and stays for the banter with the aging, mustachioed stud on the couch (“I’ve got a thing for old guys,” she later admits). As she’s proven on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Prepon is a first-rate flirt, her cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, husky voice and twinkling gaze weapons in a formidable arsenal of seduction. But something about Lee — his seen-it-all stoicism, his sadness — stirs Charlotte, and the push-pull affair that ensues between them (in a nice reversal, she has to woo him, overcoming his hang-ups about their age difference) is, surprisingly, the film’s freshest element.
It would have been even fresher if Haley hadn’t thrown bits of hackneyed plotting and trite character detail at the two. On their first date, Lee takes Charlotte to a dinner where he’s receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild. In the back of the limo en route to the event, they wash some Molly down with champagne and Charlotte starts quoting her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Much as it pains me to criticize any movie that might motivate a viewer to pick up a book of poetry, the moment feels phony — an unnecessary way to telegraph depth and intelligence in a woman who, I can only presume, Haley feared would otherwise seem vacuous or unsavory.
At the event, a high-as-a-kite Lee gives a silly acceptance speech that, in the film’s most cringeworthy development, “goes viral,” leading to a sudden flood of incoming scripts — and, of course, a big audition. The audition is one of several scenes or situations in The Hero that you see coming a mile away; another is when Charlotte invites Lee to her stand-up show, only to perform a lacerating — and, to Lee, humiliating — monologue about the indignities of sleeping with a much older man.
The most numbingly routine parts of the film, though, involve Lee’s artist ex-wife (Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross) and daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), who’s still angry at him for essentially having been an absent father. There may be compelling insights yet to be mined from parent-child reconciliation storylines, but suffice it to say that The Hero doesn’t find them.
The bottom line is that while the film is restrained and sensitively crafted hokum, it’s still hokum, and you may find it hard not to feel cheated; Elliott and Prepon create vivid characters who are summarily plugged into a male-weepie formula that leaves little room for complexity or idiosyncrasy. Crazy Heart (2009), with Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic country singer, followed a similarly tired template, but chipped away at your defenses with stirring tunes and a stubbornly shaggy rhythm that felt true to life.
The Hero is a less distinctive movie, down to Haley’s fluid direction, standard pacing and the classic L.A. “winter” scenery — golden-hued mountains, cloudy blue coast — captured by DP Rob C. Givens. The director tiptoes toward something more formally daring in a handful of recurring dream sequences — Lee, in cowboy attire, roaming the set of his most famous Western (called The Hero) — that play like a promising idea that, alas, hasn’t been fully thought out.
Luckily, Elliott succeeds in pulling you into Lee’s emotional orbit and holding you there even when the movie falters. It’s a low-key, largely reactive performance, and all the more moving for it: The actor’s most memorable moments don’t come via tantrums or tearful breakdowns, but in scenes where he simply looks and listens — wounded, hopeful, resilient and, yes, heroic.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Northern Lights Films, Park Pictures and Houston King Productions
Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross
Director: Brett Haley
Writers: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Producers: Houston King, Sam Bisbee, Erik Rommesmo
Executive producers: Jeff Schlossman, Bill Wallwork, David Bunce, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord, Theodora Dunlap, Franklin Carson, Danny Rifkin, Frank Brenner
Director of photography: Rob C. Givens
Composer: Keegan DeWitt
Production designer: Eric J. Archer
Costume designer: Alana Morshead
Casting: Emily Schweber
Not rated, 96 minutes