The voice is unmistakable. Deep and rumbling, it starts in his belly and resonates up through his vocal cords, a laconic yet authoritative drawl that soothes like a spoonful of honey but intones with the timbre of a prophet. Sam Elliott has provided the voiceover for countless commercials, plugging everything from Dodge trucks to American beef to cold beer brewed in the Colorado Rockies. So the opening scene in the elegiac The Hero, in which 71-year-old veteran cowboy actor Lee Hayden (Elliott) repeatedly attempts to nail the tagline for a barbecue sauce in a recording studio, is more than a bit meta, a winking nod at the career of the stalwart performer who’s recognized as much by his voice as his lanky physique and droopy horseshoe mustache. (The Coen brothers leveraged Elliott’s familiar attributes to perfect effect in the role of the Stranger in The Big Lebowski.) After a biopsy reveals the presence of virtually inoperable pancreatic cancer, Hayden declines to share his bad news with anyone, refusing to deal with the prospect of mortality by endlessly lighting up joint after joint (there’s a lot of drug use in this film) and baselessly telling everyone he’s going to make another legacy Western, one like the 40-year-old iconic film for which he is best remembered. But when the septuagenarian’s free-form (and molly-buzzed) acceptance speech at a lifetime achievement award ceremony goes viral and he gets another 15 minutes, the question becomes whether he’ll choose to get back in the saddle and ride out this critical juncture of his waning life.
Elliott is a fascinating actor to watch; he rarely draws attention to himself. His performances are devoid of look-at-me moments, even those with a quicksilver turn like the one in 2015’s Grandma, a brief but memorable role for which he should have been showered with awards. Elliott carries The Hero with what appears to be minimal effort, but rest assured, there’s a deceptive weight to his resigned character. But Marc Basch and director Haley’s screenplay only meets him halfway, failing to provide an adequate backstory to illuminate his character’s fleeting moment in the spotlight four decades ago or to flesh out ruined relationships with an ex-wife (real-life spouse Ross) and an embittered daughter (Ritter). Even more puzzling are the imagined scenes (it’s not clear whether they’re flashbacks, flash-forwards, or a hybrid of both) of a movie that is constantly playing in Hayden’s mind. (Then again, maybe it’s all of that pot-smoking.) Though the May-December romance between the titular character and a thirtysomething free spirit half his age (a surprisingly beguiling Prepon) whom he meets through his drug dealer smacks a bit of older-male fantasy, the chemistry between the two elevates the cliche to something you can believe. Who knew that, in this day and age, the recitation of lines in an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem could be as utterly sexy as the act of making love?
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