Sundance 2017: The Hero, by David Bax

There’s more than a bit of a wink to the casting of Sam Elliott in Brett Haley’s The Hero. The veteran Western actor and prolific TV commercial spokesman plays a veteran Western actor and prolific TV commercial spokesman. Luckily that’s more than a cheap joke as Haley uses Elliott’s Lee Hayden as a way to illustrate that the life of any freelancer, which is essentially what an actor is, consists largely of cycling in and out of other people’s workspaces. Unfortunately, beyond that–and despite a number of good performances, little else of this slice of life dramedy rings true.

Lee is a 71-year-old actor with, by his own admission, only one movie under his belt that he’s actually proud of, a 40-year-old western called The Hero. All but estranged from his wife (Katharine Ross) and his daughter (Krysten Ritter), his only real friend is a former costar turned drug dealer named Jerermy played by Nick Offerman, the movie’s absolute high point whose presence is distinctly missed whenever he’s not on screen. Shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, though, Lee starts a relationship with one of Jeremy’s other clients, a stand-up comedian named Charlotte (Laura Prepon).

If the age difference between Elliott and Prepon sounds a little skeevy to you, well, you’re right. But to Haley’s credit (along with co-screenwriter Marc Basch), The Hero makes note of the weirdness repeatedly and discusses it at length. For whatever that’s worth.

The Hero‘s best bits come when it leaves realism behind. When Lee accepts a lifetime achievement award while rolling on Molly, the stage lights become a floating set of flares and haloes, exaggerating the old Hollywood idea of a glamour shot. Haley also stages a series of dream sequences that blend Lee’s current problems with memories of his greatest role. These strokes of impressionism and beauty remind us why Lee is in this line of work in the first place. After all, as he says to Jeremy, “Movies are other people’s dreams.”

If only those scenes were the thrust of the movie. A large chunk of the second half is an embarrassing attempt to connect Lee to the modern day YouTube and TMZ nature of the industry. The aforementioned award acceptance speech becomes a popular YouTube video, a fact we learn when Prepon shouts, “Oh my God, it went viral, dude!” We as a culture already suffered through The Comedian. Can’t we get a break? Only slightly less humiliating is the scene in which we see Charlotte on stage. Haley starts the scene by including real stand-ups (the very funny Ali Wong and Cameron Esposito as themselves), which only makes Prepon’s approximation of comedian patois all the more jarring. If a character in your movie is supposed to be a comic, cast a comic. That’s the hard part. The falseness of so many elements becomes impossible for the rest of the movie to overcome.

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