Prepare to fall madly in love with Sam Elliott, star of the simple yet affecting film “The Hero.” Depending on your age, he might give you complex dad-love feelings, or more the straightforward “luv” kind, but he will gently but firmly break your heart in every scene. Celebrate the future of the Crescent Theater, which met its fundraising goal and is therefore remaining open in its current location, in the company of the actor with the greatest voice (and moustache) of all time.
Director Brett Haley, after working with Elliott in his last film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” wrote “The Hero” as a vehicle exclusively for him. Apparently he just thought everyone should know what it’s like to hang out with Sam Elliott, and he wasn’t wrong. The only shortcoming is that he might have fleshed out the other characters more fully, but Elliott still carries the film well on his broad cowboy shoulders.
Elliott plays Lee, a longtime Hollywood actor, famous for a film called “The Hero,” riding off into the sunset of his career doing commercial voiceovers for barbecue sauce and otherwise capitalizing on fame won long ago. He also has pancreatic cancer.
It doesn’t take long to see that Lee has no one in his life with whom to share his bad news. He is estranged from his adult daughter and divorced from her mother, and his best friend is his drug dealer, a former child actor he worked with in a TV series and a fellow marijuana and Buster Keaton enthusiast.
Nick Offerman is great in this role, and the only character in the film that really matches Elliott’s level of existing as a fully realized person. They create a long history between them immediately. He gets to share time with Elliott in his best scene, in which they read together from a script for Lee’s upcoming audition. For a role as a cowboy hero in a science fiction film, the echoes in his real life overwhelm him, a nice conceit that works well.
Lee doesn’t know his daughter (Kristin Ritter) very well, and neither do we. He asks her if she’s still working at a steak restaurant he liked, and she retorts that she now works at Google. This brief exchange speaks effectively to the depth of their divide. Lee is somewhat friendlier with his ex-wife, played by his real wife, Katharine Ross, but his loneliness is evident.
Ritter’s is the most thinly written character in the film, and her impact exists primarily in how Elliott shows us Lee feels about her. Maybe her sketchy details are meant as an extension of Lee’s failure to connect with her, even when he claims he wants to.
When Lee meets a wry younger woman (Laura Prepon), he finally has someone to bring as a date to his Lifetime Achievement award ceremony, but he, more than her, is extremely dubious of their May-December connection. A moment of viral fame boosts Lee’s prospects in a rather predictable course of events, but this leads Lee to further examine his feelings and options for the future of his health and life. Slowly, he realizes that if he were to die, someone might actually take notice.
“The Hero” is really a character study of a film, but what a great character. Elliott is often in a supporting role, always recognizable but almost a novelty act, but he shines in this upgrade to leading man. Lee seems like a character Jeff Bridges might play, and of course, Elliott is deeply associated with Bridges because of his cowboy role in “The Big Lebowski.” In this film, however, Sam Elliott’s character is front and center, and he actually has a name and an identity beyond “cowboy.”
Of course, “The Hero” is really about that cowboy identity, and Elliott’s signature voice and famous moustache are practically their own characters. Like Elliott himself, Lee’s legacy is inextricably tied to these characteristics, and Lee looks into the abyss and ponders what it has meant, and will mean, to play himself.
“The Hero” starts Friday, June 30, at the Crescent Theater.