Review: 'The Hero' Starring Sam Elliott And Laura Prepon

"Lonestar BBQ sauce, the perfect partner for your chicken." It's a stupid ad, the kind you might hear on the radio and not think about. But coming from the booming god-like voice of Sam Elliott, it sounds like a Commandment from on high. That's how we're introduced to Elliott's character, Lee Hayden, an aging actor best known for an iconic cowboy performance 40 years earlier. Now he's just another struggling pro whose best days are behind him. He's a stereotype, and Lee knows it with every fiber of his being.

That self awareness is important to The Hero, because it's not only integral to Lee, but it's something Elliott is undoubtedly familiar with, too. It's been a long time since Elliott's most memorable Western performances, but that voice...it still lingers. We still hear it and it compels just as much now as ever, except mostly in service to a small, supporting role, or a TV commercial. If you're a fan of The Big Lebowski then you know his voice is the silky yet gravelly narrator guy chronicling The Dude's story. But under the guidance of director Brett Haley we're seeing Elliott's career be reborn, albeit quietly, in roles designed specifically for him and all of the baggage his career brings. He was tremendous in a soulful, simple role in Haley's previous film, I'll See You In My Dreams, as the handsome love interest to a spry Blythe Danner. This time the spotlight is all his own.

Imagining The Hero as a melancholic chapter in Elliott's own life wouldn't be difficult, although this story is completely fictional. Lee's life is full of regrets and missed opportunities, mostly in regards to his family and the daughter (Krysten Ritter) he neglected for far too long. He now spends most of his time smoking weed with an old actor pal (Nick Offerman), and chasing down whatever gigs he can find. A series of events in rapid fire succession set things into motion. Some rinky-dink outfit is honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, one of those honors that suggests you've got nothing great to look forward to. Your best and only relevant work is in the past. Nick meets the beautiful, much-younger Charlotte (Laura Prepon, who hasn't been this good in years) while getting high, and the attraction is instant. Although at his age, Lee is wary of such things, although the flirtatious smirk he hits her with comes naturally.  In a bind, he asks her to attend the award ceremony, and they have a wild, drug-fueled evening that goes viral and rejuvenates his career.

Oh, and there's a cancer diagnosis. It sends Nick into a desperation to reconnect and make amends, but also to have one final hurrah as a serious actor. The rest is a journey of discovery and reflection, backed by the contemplative mood of the California coastline. Some may feel the script, co-written by Haley, doesn't reach far enough in examining Lee's situation; whether it be as an aging actor whose swagger has faded, or as a failed father. But Haley recognizes that he doesn't need to. It's all right there in Elliott's tour de force performance. We see it in Lee's eyes, the flash of acceptance as he looks up cancer survival rates on his phone. We see it in the despairing look he gives Charlotte as she, a stand-up comedian, uses their romance as fodder for her act. We see it, the mix of pride and embarrassment whenever somebody recognizes him. We see it in the far away stare after waking up from a repeated daydream in which he confronts his mortality. And as great as Elliott is on his own, he brings out a loose and funny side to Prepon that hasn't been there in some time.

Quietly, Haley has made two of my favorite movies of the last few years, and two of the best movies ever about growing older. The Hero, is a beautiful, majestic film, providing Elliott the superb late-career role that his character struggles to find for himself.

Rating: 4 out of 5