(2017) Dramedy (The Orchard) Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Alio, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Sailes, Sherwin Ace Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Todd Glieberhain, Norman De Buck, Barbara Scolaro. Directed by Brett Haley
In many ways, we use the term “hero” a bit too loosely in our society. A hero can be a first responder rushing into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside, or it can be a dad willing to play catch with his son. It’s a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s non-entity.
Lee Hayden (Elliott) was once upon a time an actor of Westerns who was one of the best of his time. His film The Hero remains an iconic look at the Old West. However, he didn’t know that was to be his career highlight. Now in his 70s, the actor smokes pot, hangs out with a former co-star and child actor now turned pot dealer Jeremy (Offerman) who ends up introducing him to another client, stand-up comedian Charlotte Dylan (Prepon). Lee’s agent isn’t exactly what you’d call a go-getter; his career has been stalled for some time, having only a barbecue sauce radio commercial to fall back on and a Lifetime Achievement award for a small-time Western Film Appreciation Society. We all know Lifetime Achievement awards are code for “I didn’t know he was still alive.”
This is all taking place about the time that Lee learns he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Lee copes with the news by snapping at his friends and smoking all the pot he can get his hands on. A chance encounter with Charlotte at a taco truck leads to an endearingly awkward invitation to be his date at the award ceremony.
His acceptance speech in which he pays a somewhat heartfelt but molly-addled thanks to his fans goes viral and suddenly he has offers and opportunities that he hasn’t had in decades. His relationship with Charlotte though is going through some rocky patches, his daughter Lucy (Ritter) doesn’t want to see him and Lee is terrified at what his future holds. What truly makes a hero?
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room – Sam Elliott is an iconic actor with a voice that sounds as timeless as the Grand Canyon and a face twice as lined. This folks is arguably the best performance of his storied career. While I admit it’s a bit strange watching Elliott as a pot head, this is as nuanced and as versatile a performance as I can recall him giving. He has moments when he’s funny as hell (as when he tells an adoring fan who loves his moustache “It loves you too, honey” and gives her a sweet peck on the cheek) and others that are pure pathos. My favorite moment in the movie is when he tells his ex-wife (played by his actual real life wife Katherine Ross) that he has cancer. The scene is shot in long shot and we don’t hear what’s actually said. We just see the ex break down and Lee move to comfort her. It’s an amazing moment by two pros who I wouldn’t mind seeing much more of on the silver screen.
And now for the other elephant in the room (this room sure holds a lot of elephants); the cancer-centric plot. It’s not that we haven’t been through hordes of movies that are about aging parents with limited time left trying to reconcile with their angry children and yes, that’s exactly what’s going on here. However, it never feels maudlin under the sure direction of Brett Haley and Elliott and his fine supporting cast make sure that the characters always feel real; never do we feel like Hayden is almost superhuman in his stoic acceptance of his oncoming date with death. Hayden shows moments of terror and at last realizing he can’t do it on his own reaches out to those closest to him.
The movie was a big hit at Sundance and was selected as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. That’s a high bar to live up to but The Hero easily reaches its lofty expectations and exceeds them. While some may think of the movie as being too sugary sweet on paper (and I admit it looks that way but only on paper) the reality is that the emotions felt genuine to me and Elliott’s performance transcends a lot of the fears I’d normally have with a movie like this. You may need a few tissues here and there but in reality this is the portrait of a truly heroic man, the kind of man who has become increasingly rare these days – a man’s man. With the scarcity of that particular species, it makes all sorts of sense to me that a woman Prepon’s age would fall for a man of Elliott’s. As hoary as the Hollywood May/December romance is, it works here. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.
REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this may be the best performance of Elliott’s career. There are some real nice visuals. The film is an interesting take on the nature of heroism.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more drug use than you’d expect as well as a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott and Ross are married in real life (they play exes here); this is the first cinematic appearance by Ross in ten years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Fall, Winter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Gangster’s Daughter