In “The Hero,” well-respected actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) was once a legend in the Western film genre but is now resigned to advertisements and voiceover work. Although “The Hero” isn’t a biopic, the similarities between Lee Hayden and Sam Elliott’s careers, mannerisms and even ages aren’t mere coincidences, as director Brett Haley has mentioned writing this movie specifically for Elliott.
Accordingly, it’s not surprising that Elliott shines as Lee Hayden, a forgotten celebrity searching for meaning as he confronts his aging, or rather, dying — he also grapples with a sudden cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, the cliche-riddled script and the cast’s general lack of chemistry render his performance, along with some spectacular camerawork, the only remarkable highlights.
“The Hero” is the second collaboration between Elliott and director Haley, after “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Elliott’s gravelly Western drawl leads us into a humorous opening scene featuring Lee in a studio recording seemingly endless takes of a barbecue sauce slogan. We laugh at the absurdity, but his voice drips with a certain sadness. This scene — sprinkled with humor, but with clear overtones of melancholy and loneliness — gives us a taste of what the movie could have been.
But instead, Lee rushes headfirst into a romance devoid of any chemistry or charisma.
The fact that Charlotte (Laura Prepon) is young enough to be Lee’s daughter is surprisingly not the main issue. Rather, it’s the bland dialogue that makes it so hard to believe that the two are genuinely drawn to each other. Lee meets Charlotte through his longtime friend, co-star and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). She woos him with a line of poetry. He’s reluctant. She shows him how to “live.” It’s a premise reminiscent of many, many rom-coms.
The side plots involving Lee’s estranged family have their share of emotional moments, but ultimately fall victim to the same sort of hackneyed constructions that plague Lee’s underwhelming romance with Charlotte. Admittedly, one of the most touching scenes in the film is between Lee and his ex-wife (Katharine Ross), where neither actually speak, but convey their thoughts completely through their actions. However, their relationship is given only a few sparse scenes, their dynamic overall remaining unexplored.
Krysten Ritter, playing Lee’s daughter Lucy, also brings a raw and natural acting style that lends well to the latter half of the movie, yet the film commits so much to the trope of the unavailable father and moody daughter that their interactions become horribly predictable.
That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have any redeemable qualities. Haley makes brilliant use of color, from the melancholy gray-blue featured in the beach scenes to the dry orange desert light that frames Lee’s nostalgic dreams of his Western glory days.
The composition of these shots reflect what the film does exceptionally well: depict a loneliness and hunger we can all understand. Haley deftly employs longer, close-up shots that highlight Elliott’s expressiveness, such as when his character is at an award ceremony watching a clip of his most renowned work. The background chatter becomes muted, the camera zooms in, and it’s suddenly clear in Elliott’s eyes the mixture of conflicting emotions the memories bring up
“The Hero” even has its genuinely humorous moments, delivering a few great generational-gap one-liners — and a delightful surprise cameo by comedian Ali Wong — but the lack of a strong script makes a large part of the movie rather bumbling and awkward. The peaks the film tries to build to are each time hindered by clumsy dialogue and lack of nuance.
We’re always left wanting more. Lee’s friendship with Jeremy is missing a bit of real camaraderie, his romance the electrifying connection, and his relationship with his daughter that extra bit of tenderness.
Though Sam Elliott puts up a solid performance, he fails to be the glue that holds together the film’s numerous loose ends. And while there are some truly touching and impactful scenes, it’s a shame that the majority of “The Hero” is rather dull.
Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].