First things first: Sam Elliott is not an icon, or an archetype, or a legend. You can make a case for all three, depending on the level of affection you have, but Sam Elliott is an actor. Wanted to be an actor, became an actor, stays an actor. He’s made a career out of it.
I feel obliged to note the distinction, if only to point out the obvious: He wasn’t born with that moustache. The now-famous Sam Elliott Cameo (see: The Big Lebowski, Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, etc.) created this contemporary Remington portrait of an American…something, I dunno. But whenever they haul Sam out for one of these moments—and they’re usually pretty effective moments—they slap another coat of paint on the statue, and I think it’s a shame.
I’m not saying he’s one of our best actors. I don’t think he is. But I think he’s a better actor than this iconic crap allows for, so I was glad to see “The Hero” get made. Somebody thought Sam deserved his very own movie, and about time.
Somebody was writer-director Brett Haley, who had cast Elliott in his 2015 feature, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Traveling together with Sam to do promotion for that film, Haley and Elliott developed a closer relationship and “The Hero” eventually came out of that.
Sam Elliott has taken some pains recently to point out that he’s not playing himself. The film is about an aging actor, Lee Hayden, who’s been plugging away for 50 years. He’s been working, hard enough for any actor, although his best role is decades in the past, and he mostly seems to do voiceover work, smoke weed, drink bourbon, and watch Buster Keaton movies with an old friend (Nick Offerman, who has some nice moments). He’s divorced and semi-estranged from his daughter, and early in the movie he’s given an ominous cancer diagnosis. Life has been a disappointment, we get it.
As Elliott notes, he’s been married for decades, he has a great relationship with his own daughter, and, as we can see, his career seems to be just fine. He’s got a Netflix series (The Ranch) and a new movie in the works (A Star Is Born, playing the manager to Bradley Cooper’s doomed musician).
I saw “The Hero” yesterday, noticing that it appeared to be on its way out of town after a week or so in theaters. What can I say? I like Sam.
I just don’t like the movie that much. Again, I’m glad to see him get a star turn, and he does some good work, but this film feels like it was written in a week. What seems to want to be a character study ends up swamped by its own sentimentality and just dumb ideas. Recurring dream sequences are occasionally visually striking but irrelevant and, again, dumb. As is a mid-movie set piece, a hokey awards ceremony in which Lee Hayden makes a grand gesture that, honestly, I’d like someone to explain to me. Using small words.
And cancer. Don’t forget.
It’s not a horrible movie, not at all. It’s just an aim and miss. Kind of dull. Nice to see Sam. That kind of movie.
And it’s nice that it exists, if only to give us a solid dose of Sam Elliott. We also get to see his wife of 35 years, Katharine Ross (playing his ex-wife in the film), although she’s on screen for maybe a total of 45 seconds and her only direction, apparently, was to frown a lot.
Offerman manages to play a drug dealer and still come across as he usually does, a well of common sense and wisdom about ordinary things. Laura Prepon is physically striking (those eyes) and has her moments, although she’s burdened with character traits that feel tacked on (she likes older men! She takes a lot of drugs! She’s a STANDUP COMIC!).
Krysten Ritter, the fine actress playing Sam’s daughter, is also handcuffed to a couple of facial expressions, none of which are all that flattering.
I searched through reviews of “The Hero” last night, wondering if I was just in a mood. Aside from an odd Rolling Stone review that was of the “mark your Oscar ballots now!” variety (not likely), I got a strong sense that critics were being gentle because, you know. Sam. “Rising above the sometimes weak material” and so on. Again, it’s just nice to see him get the screen time.
“The Hero” runs two hours, and I can’t think of a scene that doesn’t include Elliott. That’s a lot of Sam, and at age 72 there’s no movie magic. He’s a wiry, ropey senior citizen with decades etched into his skin, the years rumbling from his vocal cords, every bass note drawled out under that impressive facial hair. You can’t miss the drawl, an echo of his Texas roots.
Except he doesn’t really have Texas roots. He’s a California boy, born and bred, working his way up and down the west coast over the years but not straying east (and south) except for roles. That drawl? He’s an actor, folks. He appropriated it, and good for him. It’s a nice fit.
It also allows us to remember that this has been a long haul. He began acting in his 20s, leading-man looks getting him plenty of work, and eventually found a career. If we can all, maybe, remember specific roles that we can’t seem to forget (for me, it was his laconic, existentially challenged lifeguard in “Lifeguard” in 1976), it might be easy to forget the “working” part of working actor. He’s done a lot, and he’s a better actor for it.
I just wish he’d been given a better movie to act in. Haley’s other film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is a much better movie, and allows Elliott to slip in and out of the story with ease while Blythe Danner does the heavy lifting (this one is definitely worth your time, if you can find it, although some of the same problems show up).
And I’m not discouraging you from seeing “The Hero,” or I don’t want to, anyway. I found it a little slow; your results may vary. If you want to catch it in a theater, you might want to hurry.
Sometimes good ideas don’t work out as well as we might hope, that’s all. I’m pretty sure Sam Elliott has that figured out by now. The dude knows how to abide.