Obviously Writer/Director Brett Haley put this project together with a single thing on his mind. The goal here is obvious, give actor Sam Elliot the kind of part that is worthy of his talents but yet seems to have escaped him for his nearly fifty year career. Elliot is iconic to most of the film fans of today because of his role in the cherished “The Big Lebowski“. He has a small role as a laconic stranger who imparts wisdom and narrates the story of the slovenly hero in that film. Elliot though has been around a lot longer than “Lebowski”. His first movie was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid“, blink and you will miss him, but he was the star of one of the films I featured in my original blogging project on the summer films of the seventies. “Lifeguard” has a similar theme to it as this film, a man has to assess the life he has been living. In that film, he is at the start of middle age, in this film he is closer to the end of life than the supposedly rich middle. He is terrific in both parts, but clearly “The Hero” comes closer to reflecting the life of an aging working actor than the previous movie did in showing us a lifeguard’s mid-life crisis.
The script goes all in on making Elliot the only actor who could play this part. While Tom Selleck could give him a run for his money in the mustache department, two other elements would disqualify him. Selleck may have played some cowboys, but not as many and with such effectiveness as Elliot over the years. Second, Tom lacks the sonorous tones that are the voice of Sam Elliot. Both of them get lots of voice over work, but Elliot has a gift, much like Morgan Freeman, Elliot has a baritone to kill for. Both the mustache and the voice are focal points in the story, which happens to be about an actor as loved for his voice and mustache maybe even more than his acting talents. It is a double edged sword because it means he has had only one role that he feels really proud of, in spite of the fact that a lot of people do love him. This gives him doubts about his own worth and combined with the knowledge that he has been a failure as a father, puts him a bit into crisis mode.
There are two or three sets of tropes that can define the story. He is faced with career issues, mortality issues, daddy issues and while many will not want to say it, drug issues. The two films that keep creeping into my head while thinking about this movie are “The Wrestler” and “Crazy Heart”. These are other films that use similar points to tell their stories and the comparisons are apt for another reason, they rely on charismatic performances by the central character. Like both of those films, an unlikely younger woman becomes part of the picture as well. In this film, that is actress Laura Prepon, as Charlotte a woman half the age of Elliot’s Lee Hayden. In a refreshing change of pace, the difference in ages is an important part of the complexity of their relationship. Prepon gets two chances to read poetry in the film, and she has a very winning way of saying the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She and Elliot have great chemistry together in spite of their differences.
There is an important segment of the film where a Western Fan group wants to honor Hayden for his lifetime achievements. Of course this forces him to think a bit about what those achievements might have been. He has the one film he is proud of and a failed marriage and broken family to be haunted by. The sequence could have been a parody of fandom if it had gone the wrong way, instead, it comes as an opportunity to recognize that the source of his life force has been film fans like these. Although fueled a bit by some drug use, his heartfelt speech at the event creates some additional territory for the film to explore. What is an actor’s worth? Sometimes it is in their talent, sometimes it is a unique relationship that they have with an audience and sometimes it is just the heat of a moment. All of those force Lee to consider what his life is worth. There was a nice little part in this scene for actor Max Gail, who I don’t know if I’ve seen him since” D.C. Cab”. As great as this moment was, a few hours later there is an uncomfortable counter moment in a comedy club, which forces Lee to reassess again where his life has lead him to.
The style of the film is dramatic with comic overtones and is punctuated by frequent dream segments that visualize the metaphorical nature of Lee’s self reflection. It is not an action film or a slapstick and many people might be put off by the languorous approach to the story. I was not put off by it but my daughter found it a little slow at times. There is something great however in how the film takes it’s time in letting Lee’s story play out. Scenes feel complete and never too rushed. The relationship with Charlotte makes more sense with the pace of the film. The interaction of Lee and his neighbor/drug dealer played by Nick Offerman, is languid, in much the way you might expect consumers of particular substances to behave. The relationship with his ex-wife (played by real life wife Katherine Ross) is prickly and the connection with his daughter is neglected and frigid. Although there is a Hollywood element to the movie, it does not dominate the action but rather reflects some of the same doubts that Lee has about himself. If you have ever heard the audio clips of Orson Wells or William Shatner doing commercial voice overs, you might think they were being asses. Elliot clearly has a lot of experience in this area so he can convey the frustration of an actor with just a look and a pause or change in pace to reflect his own impatience.
The release is not wide but I’d encourage you to seek it out. I may put together a mid-year list of films that have distinguished themselves. This movie will have no trouble making my top five. I really liked it and a appreciate the talent of Sam Elliot even more. Sure his mustache and voice are the key to getting us to watch or listen to him, but acting ability carries this film and it is clear that the director meant that to be the case.