The Hero opens with our protagonist, Lee Hayden, recording the voiceover for a BBQ sauce commercial. Fitting that he is played by Sam Elliott, whose voice, which manages to be both velvety AND leathery, is pretty much synonymous with BBQ sauce, salsa, and any other condiment associated with rugged manliness. Cut Sam Elliott open and what do you get? BBQ sauce.
And wool socks. They’re a bit itchy but they get the job done and they don’t wear out.
“Can you say it one more time?” asks the producer.
“Just one more?”
Hayden swallows his shame and relents. Sure, he’ll say the slogan one more time. He’ll say it 100 more times if it means he gets a paycheck. Outside of voiceover gigs and nostalgia appearances, entertainment work has pretty much dried up for ol’ Lee, and as much as it pains him, he’s going to have to coast on the waning celebrity status afforded to him by an iconic role in a classic western decades prior.
It was called – get this – The Hero, not to be confused with this film which is named after that film within this film that isn’t actually real – get it? Do you get it? Tell me if you don’t get it and I will explain it to you.
It’s when Hayden finds he has a pretty bad case of pancreatic cancer that he decides to reignite the passion in his life. Maybe make a movie. Maybe make amends with his estranged daughter. Maybe cut back from smoking tons of pot to just smoking a lot of pot. And if things go well, maybe, just maybe, see if he can’t get this disease treated.
In many ways, Hayden is a riff on Elliott’s own image, with both men being actors of talent (presumable talent in the case of Hayden, whose career we only get a taste of), pigeonholed into a very specific image. Like I said before, Sam Elliott IS barbecue sauce. Where the two men differ is in their personal lives. Hayden has a broken family, a handful of vices, and messy case of the woe-is-mes, while Elliott, by all accounts, is a pretty low-key guy with a happy family life (his long-time marriage to Katharine Ross – who plays his wife here as well – is the type of enduring partnership rarely seen in Hollywood).
Michael Keaton pulled a similar trick with Birdman. We knew that he and Riggan were not the same person, but we also knew that no one else could have played the role with such insight. It’s Elliott’s insight that makes a film like The Hero, which covers absolutely no new ground in the memento mori subgenre of drama, feel almost essential. After a career of playing side characters suited to his affixed image, it’s wonderful to see Elliott carrying a movie and using his image to tap into emotional depth. He’s more than earned his chance to do so, and he knocks it out of the park.
Otherwise, The Hero is a middle of the road affair. Certainly not boring, and mostly quite good, but there are a litany of missed opportunities which come in the form of glossed-over exposition. Anyone who’s seen a movie before knows exactly how the tale shakes out: Hayden’s go-for-broke attitude as spawned by his new acquaintance with mortality unexpectedly puts him back into the spotlight. He begins a new romance, finds satisfying work, and even tries to reconnect with his daughter. Unfortunately, these events all seem to occur as a matter of course. I’d like to know why he’s estranged from his daughter as opposed to just chalking it up to “typical celebrity stuff.” I’d like some background on why his career never took off as big as his image did. I’d like to see a version of this film where I feel challenged to view Lee Hayden in a positive light — where he has to earn his role as protagonist. Based on what we get, I am certain that Elliott is more than up to the task.
Laura Prepon (shamefully underused on the big screen) has the thankless task of playing Hayden’s new love interest. She’s not fully written, nor is her dialogue always believable, but Prepon makes it work quite well. Her Charlotte is a standup comic with a penchant for much older men, and it’s her performance which brings this hard-to-look-at fling not just digestible, but the kind of relationship that you root for.
Equally good (and working with much less cagey material) is Nick Offerman, whose humorous Jeremy met Hayden long ago on the set of a western TV show (he played the plucky kid sidekick), and who is now a divorced, lonely pot dealer.
Intercut with our main narrative are small windows into Hayden’s career in which we see his present day visage recreating moments from his past work. These surreal moments teeter on the edge of being visually interesting, but in a fairly straightforward and purposefully un-shiny film, they lack the panache to really stand out. It wasn’t until each was well underway that I would read precisely what was going on, and while that was clearly the effect that director Brett Haley was going for, these moments could have benefit ted from a bit more pop. Elliott is no stranger to comedy, and in these segments it would’ve been a delight to see him flex his comedic chops while straddling the drama of it all.
As much as these missed opportunities may sound, at least in this review, like they outweigh the film’s merits, I assure you that they do not. From front to back, top to bottom, The Hero is a joy. Just because I wish it had dug a bit deeper doesn’t mean it necessarily needed to. This was meant as a light-ish showcase for a bonafide American treasure, and dagnabbit, it gets the job done without being schmaltzy, boring, or worst of all, twee.
Some barbecue sauces are better than others, but most are pretty good. This one is sweet, tangy, and has just enough bite to feel genuine. So what if I prefer mine just a touch smokier?
The Hero opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.