Film Review: The Hero

Brett Haley’s follow-up to 'I’ll See You in My Dreams' is powered by a similar sweetness, as well as a stellar performance from Sam Elliott. 'The Hero' candidly delves into the difficulties of old age without trivializing them.
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Writer-director Brett Haley’s tender sophomore feature I’ll See You in My Dreams, which follows an aging widow’s fulfilling routine as it gets disrupted by a series of unexpected late-life events, pulled off a feat no one saw coming. It went on to becoming one of 2015’s biggest Sundance-hailed earners at the box office, surpassing some of the younger-skewing, supposedly hotter titles of the festival with bigger sales figures and proving yet again the hunger of an underserved, older demographic for films in which they can see themselves. But I’ll See You in My Dreams required one, however young or old, to have a big, hopeful heart first and foremost to appreciate its beauty. By refusing to trivialize old age, it resonated broadly.

With the equally compassionate The Hero starring Blythe Danner’s I’ll See You in My Dreams co-star Sam Elliott, Haley (perhaps unsurprisingly) follows up on the success of his previous film by treading similar waters and displaying comparable sensibilities. Once again, he portrays a character in his golden years with empathy and earnestness, while composing melancholic musings on the process and aftermath of aging. The resulting film is touching and, thanks in large part to Elliott’s cowboy-like cool charisma, very watchable, even though it falls somewhat short of I’ll See You in My Dreams’ depth, richness and humor. Still, The Hero conquers its audience’s hearts eventually with irresistibly relatable observations on life, relevant to any age group.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a character with visible parallels to his real-life and career persona. Lee is a onetime movie star who found fame in the ’70s with westerns of a bygone era. The film opens with Elliott’s earthy, baritone voice in present time, recording a commercial for a barbecue sauce brand. In this scene, we sense right away that this must be just a paycheck gig for a character we know nothing about, perhaps even an undignified gig. Our intuition is soon confirmed.

As he did with I’ll See You in My Dreams (by starting the story off with the death of a pet), Haley gets right to the point with The Hero after this brief, initial prologue: We quickly learn that Lee is indeed struggling to get work on par with his ex-stardom, has a failed marriage and a daughter he doesn’t see often, as well as pancreatic cancer. But instead of facing his problems head on, Lee delays possible resolutions and gleefully wastes the little time he has left by getting high with his buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman), another ex-actor whom he once worked with in a western series. So when his doctor insists upon starting a treatment regimen and his agent calls with good news (he’s receiving a lifetime achievement award from a small organization called “Western Preservation and Appreciation Society”), Lee just disregards and delays.

But a romance with a much younger, mysterious woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) develops and Lee briefly finds his sea legs again. At the very least, he decides to attend the awards ceremony with her. To his (and our) shock, the exuberant acceptance speech he delivers high on MDMA becomes an Internet sensation that opens up the gates of heaven and Hollywood for him once more. But this is not necessarily the Hollywood comeback story you might briefly expect at this point. Slowly but surely, Lee’s vulnerability and fear of death claim the best of him at key moments when he could have perhaps turned the ship around.

Elliott conveys Lee’s disorderly emotional world exquisitely in one of the most challenging roles he’s shouldered in perhaps his entire character. In a turn similar to Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler, he delivers a wide-ranging portrayal of a washed-up actor trying to navigate his challenging golden years and survive under the weight of his former glory, present decline and lifelong regrets. We experience most of this complexity on Elliott’s sturdy, tough face that softens and even breaks down at times. But Haley also takes us into his lead character’s headspace every now and then with an imaginary western film, in which Lee stars in his fantasies. In its endnote, The Hero delicately and decisively reminds us we are all still chasing or trying to live up to our own former glory one way or the other.

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