Writer-director Brett Haley (along with his co-writer Marc Basch) make gentle films about a tough subject that a great many films are afraid to tackle—getting older. Their previous collaboration, I’ll See You in My Dreams, starred Blythe Danner as a woman attempting to find some level of excitement and change late in her life. Their newest work, The Hero, which made its Chicago debut recently at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, is about an aging actor named Lee Hayden, played by the busier-than-ever Sam Elliott, doing a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I version of himself. Lee is best known for a cowboy character he played decades earlier and is now struggling to find work, settling for voiceover jobs and the occasional degrading audition. His frustration is real and stems from knowing he’s still capable of doing great work.
He spends most days hanging with his old acting buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman), who is also his pot dealer, and the two talk about the old days and bemoan the present ones. Early in the film, Lee is given a shocking bit of medical news, and it changes his entire outlook on the life he’s led and still had left to lead. Around this time, several things happen: he is invited to attend an event where he will be honored for his work in Westerns; he meets a much younger stand-up comic named Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and they seem to hit it off; and he attempts to make some degree of peace with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, makes a brief appearance as Lee’s even more estranged ex-wife.
Clearly Elliott has had a much more diverse career than Lee, but it doesn’t require you to squint very much to see the similarities in their lives. For many years, Elliott was only doing Westerns, and he grew to resent it for a time. Lee can’t afford to resent the very thing that even gets people to take his calls, so when he decides to attend the lifetime achievement award, he brings his new lady friend, if only to allow her to see how much his fans adore him. I’ll admit, it’s strange seeing Elliott use a cellphone, and even more bizarre to watch him beg for work or a chance to work. The film has a lot of humor in it, but more often than not, it’s filled with awkward and tragic moments in the life of a struggling older actor.
Lee is worried about his legacy and his time left on this earth, and just when he’s about to give up, a strange occurrence at the awards ceremony goes viral, and casting agents begin to call again. There’s a sequence where Elliott and Offerman are running lines the day before a big audition for Lee, and it’s pure magic. Elliott brings to life some of the worst dialogue you will ever here, and you get a sense what these two were like as co-stars in their glory days. The moment is juxtaposed with the actual audition, which doesn’t go nearly as well, and we get as much of a sense of Elliott’s value and talent as an actor as we do Lee talent. It’s that perfect moment when an actor holds a mirror up to see himself and refuses to blink until the other guy blinks first. The Hero is perfectly ragged around the edges, but rugged and elegant at its core, like many of our heroes. Seek this one out, partner.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.