The Hero a Classic Middling Film

THE HERO (2017)
Directed by Brett Haley
The Orchard, 93 minutes, R (language, drug use, sexual content)

The Hero is the very essence of a middling movie: not great, but not bad; not funny enough to be a comedy, or serious enough to be a drama; very well acted in places, and halfheartedly so in others; a summer movie, but with more potential depth than most; and at turns clichéd and surprising. If you can put aside the desire for it to be more than it is, The Hero is a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half inside an air-conditioned theater.

It follows the waning days of a has-been cowboy TV and matinee idol, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott). Hayden's coming up on his 72nd birthday and is a divorcé living alone in the hills above Los Angeles. He supports himself by using his stentorian voice to do commercials and spends his time contemplating his dire medical prognosis, lamenting his estrangement from his daughter Lucy (Kyrsten Ritter), and smoking dope with Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), his dealer and former co-star. Basically he's just waiting to ride off into the sunset.

Two things put a damper in that non-plan. First, Lee reluctantly agrees to accept a lifetime achievement award from an obscure group devoted to Western classics. Second, a younger woman, Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), shows up to buy some dope from Jeremy, and Lee is intrigued enough by her sparkling repartee to invite her to go with him to the awards banquet. Suffice it to say that something happens at that ceremony to make Lee a hot commodity once again. Call it the age of celluloid meets the age of Twitter. Things with Charlotte are a bit more complicated. Is she a daughter substitute? Are we on the cusp of a May-December romance? Or is Charlotte, a stand-up comic, using broken-down Lee as raw material for her act?

Elliott and Prepon are terrific as an odd couple—he of the resonant voice, push-broom moustache, and a demeanor somewhere between the cowboy code of honor and that expected of a brothel bouncer; she of the arched eyebrows, snarky attitude, third-wave feminism, and world of e-communication. Ritter is less successful as daughter Lucy. She is best known as a model and a TV actress, and her overall lack of emotional range is rather evident. Alas, the same must be said of Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) as Lee's ex, Valerie. I had a serious crush of Ms. Ross when I was younger but, truth be told, she's never been a great actress. She doesn't have much to do in The Hero, and she doesn't do it very well. (Excuse the syntactical mess, but you know what I mean!)

The Hero is ultimately a ping-pong film that is alternatively exactly what you expect one moment (ping), but then not-so-obvious the next (pong). I suppose one could argue that Elliott has been living off laconic cowboy stereotypes since The Big Lebowski (1998), but I see him as another ping-pong factor in this film. At times, he is nearly silent—other than a few F-bombs—but when he speaks, his words are spare, but choice. On the flip side, this movie could use a whole lot more script polishing. There is too much padding and not enough background development, especially of Prepon's character. I can see the benefits of making her tough and mysterious overall, but when we she isn't, we wonder where her softness was residing. I suspect that director Brett Haley wanted to keep her cloaked to deflect attention from the creepiness factor in the room: Elliott is 72 and Prepon is 37. In essence, it's safer to dwell on the two getting high than getting jiggy. Yet for all of the pulled punches, The Hero at least suggests more important stuff, mortality and morality for starters. Who gets to tell anyone else how to live, for another.

Rob Weir


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