If there’s one thing director Brett Haley and his writing partner Marc Basch are great at, it’s creating terrific roles for the septuagenarian set, a segment of the acting community that’s mostly forgotten by Hollywood. Take their 2015 hidden gem I’ll See You in My Dreams, a comedic drama that starred Blythe Danner and veteran character actor Sam Elliott as romantic leads. The role was a particularly long time in coming for Elliott. If anyone’s paid their dues, it’s this charismatic cowpoke with his brush-like mustache, thick mane of gray hair and deep drawl that’s instantly recognizable from the voiceovers he’s provided for numerous ad campaigns. He began his career with a bit part in George Roy Hill’s classic 1969 Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where he played opposite Paul Newman and Robert Redford as “Card Player #2.”
Despite that humble beginning, the 72-year-old Elliott has carved out a nice career for himself, memorably appearing in supporting roles as Virgil Earp in 1993’s Tombstone and The Stranger in the 1998 Coen brothers favorite The Big Lebowski. But it’s here in Haley’s latest film, the charming comedic drama The Hero, that Elliott plays the role of a lifetime. He’s the romantic lead and the star of the picture, exuding charm with an easygoing grin and a twinkle in his eye that makes his character’s buried emotional depth all the more powerful when it’s revealed.
Elliott plays Lee Hayden, and if you’re a fan of classic movie tough guys, you’d be correct in assuming this role was also conceived as a tribute to a couple of heroes of co-writers Haley and Basch: Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden. Unlike those imposing figures from the Hollywood of yore, Elliott’s Hayden hasn’t been so successful. Although he’s known for his titular role in a fictional Western called, yes, The Hero, Lee hasn’t landed a role in quite some time; when we’re introduced to him, the best work he can find is behind the scenes, providing voiceovers. However, Lee’s estimable voice is being wasted on a two-bit campaign for “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce, the perfect pardner for your chicken,” a long way from Elliott’s internationally recognized voiceover work for Dodge and Coors.
Frustrated as he drives home from a humbling day taking direction from a faceless nobody in the recording booth, Lee receives a phone call from his agent. But the call isn’t about an acting job; Lee is informed that he’s been offered a Lifetime Achievement Award from a group calling themselves the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild.
“Lifetime, eh?” the 71-year-old Lee says, aware that he’s nearing the end. How near, he couldn’t have imagined, however. Lee’s next piece of news is the pancreatic cancer diagnosis that provides the dramatic engine that drives the film.
The existential crisis that follows finds Lee hiding his illness from those closest to him and denying it even to himself, delaying treatment as he struggles with his legacy—or perceived lack of one. Faced with a potential death sentence, Lee visits his ex-wife, Val (Elliott’s actual wife of 33 years, The Stepford Wives’ Katharine Ross), on his way toward an attempted reconciliation with his estranged adult daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter, star of Netflix’s Jessica Jones). But before their dinner date can take place, much pot will be smoked at the home of Lee’s best friend and dealer, Jeremy Frost (Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman), who co-starred in his youth with Lee on a fictional TV series named Cattle Drive, playing a “cocky kid who stole the wrong man’s horse.” Presumably, that man was Lee’s gunslinger, hero of a show that lasted only 13 episodes.
It’s also through Jeremy that Lee meets standup comic Charlotte Dylan (Orange Is the New Black’s Laura Prepon), who pops by Jeremy’s place to buy a bag. Soon, Lee’s “sad old pothead” is spending his days (and nights) with this woman who’s not much older than his daughter as he gradually comes to discover what’s important. It’s an overly familiar plot arc that’s been in use since at least 1952, when legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa deployed it in his humanistic masterpiece, Ikiru (To Live).
And while Haley’s film fumbles a bit of the profundity and lacks the unique structure that helped make Kurosawa’s great, Elliott proves himself nearly equal to the talents of Takashi Shimura, the actor who anchored Ikiru with his haunted presence. Nevertheless, even if Haley is treading through the work of others—and even himself, given some surface similarities to his superior I’ll See You in My Dreams—he’s doing so with great empathy and affection for his characters. It’s a deft touch you won’t often find in films starring actors half Elliott’s age. ◆
The Hero ***
Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Allo, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Saites and Katharine Ross. Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Directed by Haley. At Kendall Square.