The Hero


Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott are most definitely amused.

(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

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In a World…


Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Eva Longoria, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Stephanie Allynne, Melissa Disney, Olya Milova, Corsica Wilson, Yelena Protsenko, Charly Chaikin, Janicza Bravo, Jason O’Mara, Talulah Riley, Don La Fontaine, Jeff Garlin, Amy Vorpahl. Directed by Lake Bell

If you’re reading this, chances are you like movies enough to pay attention to the trailers. One of the most notable phrases in a trailer is “In a world…” which actually was the trademark of a single man – Don La Fontaine, who essentially for 20 years was the voice of movie trailers. Although there were certainly other voice over artists who worked major studio releases, La Fontaine was The Man pretty much up to his death in 2008.

However, it is true that nearly all the voices you hear shilling movies in their trailers are men – the lone exception being Melissa Disney (who in a nice bit of gracia is given a small role here by Bell) whose voice was once heard extolling the virtues of Gone in 60 Seconds. Carol Solomon (Bell) would like to be the next Big Voice. She is pretty talented too, able to switch to just about any sort of vocal style you can name. In order to better emulate them she likes to record people, sometimes surreptitiously sometimes not to the point where she has been barred from the high end hotel where her sister Dani (Watkins) works as a concierge. However, it’s a nearly impossible field to break in to for a woman so Carol makes due with gigs as a vocal coach helping celebrities like Eva Longoria speak with a believable accent.

What makes it doubly hard is that her father, Sam Sotto (Melamed) is one of the bigwigs in the industry and due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He’s not a candidate for father of the year by any stretch of the imagination – his voice may be sonorous but his soul is not. Carol has been sleeping in his spare room for awhile but Sam kicks her out so that his girlfriend Jamie (Holden) – whom Carol and Dani deride as a groupie – can move in. Carol moves in with Dani and her husband Moe (Corddry).

The “In a world” trailer line is going to be brought back for Hollywood’s hottest property – a quadrilogy called The Amazon Games and while the producers want Sam to do it, Sam magnanimously steps aside so that his good friend and protégé Gustav Warner (Marino) can get the gig but Gustav – whose ego may be even greater than Sam’s – contracts laryngitis and is unable to make the recording session for a temporary track to show the executive producer. Carol is helping Longoria re-record her dialogue in a nearby studio and the engineer, Louis (Martin) suggests that Carol do the temp track.

It turns out that the executive producer is so taken by Carol’s performance that she wants to use Carol for the final track and based on that Carol begins to get work on other trailers as well. Gustav is throwing a party for Sam and his impending award so Carol kind of has to go. Louis is eager to go with her as her date but is too shy to ask her. At the party Gustav hooks up with Carol, not realizing who she is.

Will Carol end up with the selfish Gustav or the shy Louis? Will Moe and Dani be able to overcome their marital problems? And who will be the one to warble the immortal words “In a world”?

This is one of those movies that earns the laughs that it gets. This isn’t one of those “throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen and see what sticks.” The humor is carefully crafted and a collaboration between Bell, the writer and director of the film and her actors, taking advantage of their strengths as comic actors as well as of their physical appearances.

Bell’s ability with accents and mimicry is part of what stands out about her performance on the surface but if you look a little deeper you’ll find that this is a very layered character who can be selfish and oblivious to the needs of others – obviously the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and also there’s a great deal of insecurity there as well. She desperately wants to be part of the elite of the industry whose voice is instantly recognizable even if her face isn’t. Somehow, I think the ladies of 20 Feet from Stardom might understand her pretty well.

Bell also shows some skills behind the camera as well, shooting this more in the style of a drama rather than a comedy – Woody Allen is a master of this and Bell delivers a movie that Allen would likely be proud of. However, I think that as a writer she might be most talented of all – this is a smart script that allows each character enough time and space to develop a real personality. They’re not perfect and they’re just flawed enough to be realistic without being annoying. She doesn’t fall into the indie “quirkier-than-thou” trap which a lot of independents tend to do, mistaking neuroses for personality.

Melamed is perfectly cast as the unctuous Sam, full of fake bonhomie and ego but even so there is love in him. Even Gustav, the erstwhile villain, has some redeeming and interesting features. Corddry gets a somewhat different kind of role to play – Moe is less sure of himself and much nicer than what we usually see out of Corddry.

This is really a very good movie, worth seeking out. Bell has always been one of those actresses who does solid but not really noticeable work mainly in second banana roles. Here she is front and center and shows that she is worthy of consideration for higher profile parts – like this one. In a world where the worthy are rewarded for their toil, it would be sure to happen. Seeing as this is planet Hollywood, that is far from a sure thing.

REASONS TO GO: Deceptively funny. Bell is magnificent in front of and behind the camera.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too Hollywood of an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of foul language including some sexual references and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the winner of the award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the Light in the Sky

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1