2017-07-14 / On The Town

‘The Hero’ engages the heart and mind

The Movie Nut
Robert Gibbons

What can you say about a story of a 71-year-old man dying of pancreatic cancer?

That it’s occasionally painful to watch? That it wanders around a bit trying to find its sense of direction? That both it—and its main character—have difficulty making decisions?

That’s all true, but so is this: The movie stars the great Sam Elliott and his luxurious moustache. Laura Prepon lights up the screen. And the magnetic chemistry between Elliott and Prepon gives this story a lot of “giddy-up.”

“The Hero” is engaging, involving and intermittently entertaining.

And when was the last time there was a film for older men that wasn’t filled with mindless violence and nudity, four-letter words and guys with access to unlimited ammo?

Sometimes sweet and sentimental, sometimes cliche-ridden, sometimes humorous and always human, this is the story of a man who, as his drug-dealing friend says. “Once had a wife, now we just have each other.”

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) was a film star with one memorable Western—“The Hero”—to his credit. We flash back to that several times; it’s never far from Lee’s mind.

But he hasn’t worked in anything significant since then. When we first meet him, he’s recording voice-overs for Lonestar Barbeque Sauce, begging his agent for a real job.

Although scripts aren’t coming in, the Western Appreciation and Preservation Society is offering Lee its Lifetime Achievement Icon Award this year, and he decides to accept it. He needs someone to accompany him to Sunday’s ceremony .

He can’t ask Jeremy (Nick Offerman), his only friend and dealer, with whom he drinks and smokes and who, like him, is usually stoned on “the devil’s lettuce.”

He won’t ask his former wife, Valerie (Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife), who’s planning an art gallery show and has little time for him. And his estranged daughter, Lucy (Ritter), turns him down.

But then he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a friend of Jeremy’s. “All the actors I know are self-centered and insane,” she tells him. “That’s about right,” he says, but when he asks her to go, she agrees.

And they begin an affair that neither fully understands—and he’s not sure he wants.

Because he’s got that cancer on his mind. He’s putting off treatments, trying to avoid thinking about it. He’s dying a bit every day; to him, it seems easier than living.

But the love of a good woman can bring more energy and enthusiasm to ordinary moments—and that’s what Charlotte is trying to do. For him and for us.

He has more light in his life, and we have more life in the movie. Prepon is so upbeat, so much fun, so devoted to Lee in her own unique way.

She makes us laugh and think and we want her to keep returning to the scene. She helps Lee understand the way the world works, pushes him to do the right thing, gives him—and us —something to look forward to.

She’s just wonderful. And so is Elliott. He has a way of tipping his head, and looking down his nose slightly as he listens intently, that’s warm, friendly, inviting and comes with an engaging smile.

And then there’s that deep rich voice. It’s always good to welcome Elliott back.

To be fair, the middle is sometimes druggy and draggy, repetitious and slow; early dialogue sounds unnatural; and director Brett Haley lingers too often and too long on silent close-ups of Elliott’s face.

This isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy or a suspenseful drama. And it’s definitely not a Western. But it’s special in its own quiet, unassuming way.

It gives us people to care about while it tells a story that engages both our heart and our mind.

And, especially for audience members who are near Lee’s age, it poses a question: Are you satisfied with what you’ve achieved in your life, comfortable with being reminded of your mortality?

Your answer will determine if this movie is for you.

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