The Hero is a showcase for Sam Elliott, one of those actors that seems so familiar you think he has had a far more prominent career with far more big roles than he really has. (I associate him most with the wonderful The Big Lebowski, but he felt very familiar to me the first time I saw that, which is odd, since in looking through his roles on IMDB, I had probably seen very little of his career up until then. Some of it may be the memorable voice.)
Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an actor with a career that overlaps considerably with that of Elliott himself. Hayden had one big breakthrough role in a western over 40 years ago, and while since then he has “kept busy” as he says, rather than drop into complete obscurity or cease his acting career, it has been with a steady stream of lesser and supporting roles in movies and on TV, as well as some voice acting in commercials and such. Now past 70, he finds that even the lesser roles are few and far between.
It doesn’t help his mood when he is told a minute or two into the film that he has pancreatic cancer, with little in the way of promising treatment options.
In response to his plight, he smokes a lot of pot, alone or with his neighbor friend, a younger actor. (Though Hayden’s career is somewhat on the skids, and we can infer that his friend probably didn’t hit the big time even to the extent that Hayden briefly did, it’s not like they’re bums on the street. They seem to get enough work—supplemented on the friend’s side by at least some small scale dealing of the drugs they like to partake of—to be doing fine financially, as they live in nice, big houses in southern California and can sit around and smoke weed all day when they want.)
The news also motivates him to try to reconnect with his adult daughter. (He contacts his ex-wife too, but they seem to have reached an uneasy truce that they have decided to be satisfied with. It’s the daughter that brings up his feelings of guilt and regret, and with whom he has feelings of unfinished business.)
She is still bitter over (his role in) her childhood, and not all that receptive to his current efforts to reestablish some kind of relationship. She accusingly points out how convenient it is that this is happening when he has just learned he has a fatal illness. He doesn’t deny that that was the trigger, but humbly takes the position—and I would say he is correct—that it’s better for him to attempt to make amends than not, regardless of what might be criticizable about the proximate cause or timing of that attempt.
The female lead of The Hero is Laura Prepon, who enters Hayden’s life by chance when they meet at his friend’s house. Soon they are dating, despite the multi-decade age difference.
I should mention, by the way, that I’ve always found Prepon super sexy. I know on That ’70s Show it was supposedly the other one that was the hot one and Prepon was the one who was just decent looking, but (though I would be thrilled to be with either) Prepon was clearly the hotter one to me. So just being able to look at her for an hour and a half is a significant plus for this movie, though I wish there were more exposure of her luscious tall body than the very modest amount we get here, plus I have a slight preference for her as a redhead.
Elliott has been widely praised for his performance. Some critics love the movie and him in it; some don’t much care for the movie but make it a point to say he’s still excellent in it.
I agree he’s very good. He’s an actor who does tend to draw one’s attention whenever he’s on screen. I wouldn’t say I was as blown away by his performance as many others seem to have been, but I did appreciate it.
Maybe the most gripping of his scenes in the movie are two in which he is reading from a script he has been sent for an audition. He is up for the part of a father, and he finds that the dialogue eerily parallels his situation with his own daughter.
The two scenes show how a part overlapping so much with an actor’s real life in such emotionally powerful ways can be a double-edged sword. By facilitating the actor getting into character it can make the performance very real and very effective, as we see in the first scene. But then in the second scene we see how it can also prove overwhelming emotionally for the actor to where he can’t perform the scene properly.
I thought the movie as a whole was well acted, not just Elliott’s part. Prepon, for instance is fine. I did, though, find some of her dialogue a bit clunky. In order to play up the age difference, they give her dialogue that I suppose reflects the generation she is supposed to be of, e.g., always calling people “Dude” and such. Something about that didn’t feel authentic to me.
Another possible quibble with the film is that Hayden underreacts to his new, far, far younger girlfriend. Maybe it’s just a matter of Prepon to me being so super hot, but I have to think that if I’m balling someone even close to that level when I’m in my 70s—or, you know, ever—I’m going to react like I won the lottery. But Hayden takes it all in stride, seemingly more skeptical and bemused by it than excited.
It may reflect, though, the heavy shit he has on his mind—the whole dying thing, and trying to make things right with his daughter before it’s too late. This could plausibly be one of the few times that finding yourself in bed with a Laura Prepon is not the most significant thing currently going on in your life.
The Prepon character, by the way, is a stand-up comic by trade. There is one scene in a comedy club where we get to see part of her act, as well as the end of the act of the preceding comic (who evidently is a real comic playing herself—though I’ve never seen or heard of her—so presumably what we’re seeing from her at least is pretty much what she does in real life).
I found that sequence strangely unfunny, stale, and unappealing. In part that’s because Prepon in her act makes some insulting references to Hayden’s age, but I don’t mean that. I mean something about that style of comedy itself, where a lone comic stands on a stage and talks about (real or made-up) experiences from her life in witty ways. There’s just something depressingly formulaic about that.
It’s the kind of thing that—if done well—can be quite entertaining coming from a regular person in real life, you know, someone who can tell a story well and who is good at spotting and recreating the really oddball parts of an experience. But somehow my expectations are different with a professional performer. The same anecdotes about life that I might appreciate when I’m just shooting the shit with someone seem insufficient coming from a paid performer.
I mean, some comics can still pull that style off reasonably well, even if it has been done to death by now. But maybe it’s because that feels so conventional and tired that I always went more for “outside the box” weirdo comics like Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Emo Phillips, Steve Martin, Judy Tenuta, etc., people who—very much unlike the comics in this movie—have a unique style of their own.
Speaking of comedy, I see The Hero is categorized as “comedy drama” on IMDB. As is the case with well over 90% of movies labeled “comedy drama” or “black comedy,” I experienced it as almost entirely drama. There might be a smile or a chuckle here and there, but that’s true of life too. I don’t think of a movie as a comedy, or a half comedy, just because not every character in every scene is deadly serious.
I’d say the primary mood of this film is one of sadness. It’s a quiet, slow-paced story of an elderly man (if anything, Elliott in this movie looks older than early 70s) who is taking stock of his life and is saddened by what he sees.
Let’s emphasize “slow” especially. There’s considerably more I liked than disliked about The Hero, but its slowness is a factor that keeps me from rating it too high.
Then again, I have mixed feelings about that. It’s a movie with a certain gravity, an engaging grimness. The languid pace might well be necessary to give it that heft.
But whether the slowness is a positive or a negative, the result is it feels like surprisingly little happens in this movie. Sure, I could list a decent number of significant things that occur, but maybe half or a third as many as in the average movie of this length.
Then it just ends, with little in the way of resolution. It’s the kind of film that leaves you with far more questions than answers.
Certainly in some areas you can be pretty sure how things will turn out, but “pretty sure” is not the same as actually including the outcome in the film. There are such things as surprises in life after all, so just because you’re given clues, even strong clues, about what would have happened if the movie had extended farther into the future doesn’t mean you really know it.
Will Hayden die soon, as expected, and if so, how soon?
To what extent will he succeed in reconciling with his daughter?
Does his relationship with Prepon have long term (well, as long as he’s going to be around, anyway) potential? (It’s not really explored, but Prepon might well be a significantly troubled person, just based on her drug use, her willingness to date guys decades older than her—I mean, I’m all for it, at least if I’m the guy, but I would think people who date that unconventionally are disproportionately emotionally unhealthy—and certain things about the way she carries herself. It’s possible that were we allowed to see more, the relationship would go bad as a result of ways that she is fucked up rather than ways he is.)
Will he have any success in resurrecting his career?
There are a number of scenes in the film of a recurring dream where he is in a movie, playing a character like he did in his one hit of forty plus years earlier—perhaps a sequel—but with certain ominous overtones, such as his coming upon a body hanging from a tree. How does the dream turn out? It feels like gradually more is being revealed each time there’s another dream sequence, but like every other thread, this too is left unresolved.
Again, it’s not that answers to some of these aren’t indicated in one way or another; you can take educated guesses about how most or all of these subplots will turn out. But they are indeed guesses.
Is it a bad thing for a film to leave so many questions? That’s a matter of taste. For me, I tend to want to know more about how a story plays out than The Hero chooses to reveal. But the abrupt ending didn’t ruin the film for me. At most I experienced it as a minor negative. On the whole, I still appreciate The Hero as a thoughtful, well-executed film with a compelling lead character.