One of my favorite films is Thank You for Smoking (2005), a satire about a Big Tobacco spokesman who spins for a living. And my favorite part of that film is the sequence where Aaron Eckhart visits the ranch of a character played by Sam Elliott. It's so rich and vivid, I always wish the rest of the movie just continued it.
Elliott is brilliant. And pissed off. He's the original Marlboro Man, he's dying of cancer, and the industry no longer requires his services. It's amazing to watch the actor work a full spectrum of emotions into six minutes. Also amazing: Someone else evidently had the same thought. The Hero is that fabulous scene fleshed out into a 95-minute film.
Does the film retain the scene's fabulousness? To my surprise (and despite the reviewers who have picked nits since its Sundance premiere), it does. The Hero features an affecting, adult story in addition to the most impressive work of Elliott's career.
He's back in the saddle as Lee Hayden, an actor famous for his sonorous voice, signature 'stache and a half-century of westerns. In other words, he's Elliott, more or less — not a one-time Marlboro Man but a cowboy icon nonetheless. The picture Lee is most proud of was made 40 years earlier. These days he pays the bills by doing voiceovers for commercials.
And, again, he's pissed off. Not because scripts have stopped coming in — though that doesn't help — but because he's got cancer and a handful of years left if he's lucky. He's also got a daughter (Krysten Ritter) and ex (real-life wife Katharine Ross) with whom he wants desperately to reconnect. Lee tells himself his best days aren't behind him. Then the Western Appreciation Society offers him a lifetime achievement award.
This is a man with much on his mind. One who frequently contemplates the cosmos and his place in it, under the influence of weed purchased from his neighbor and best friend, Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Their scenes together are a joy. Jeremy used to be in westerns, too. Think Cheech and Chong on the range.
Lee initially thinks he's hallucinating when an attractive young woman he meets at Jeremy's confesses she has a crush on him. Laura Prepon is a revelation as Charlotte, a standup comic with a love of Edna St. Vincent Millay and a thing for older men. Much older.
One's reflex is to dismiss her character as a lazy device. But that would be a mistake. Both characters have credible depth, and the relationship they cultivate is subtle, poignant and intelligently imagined. Needless to say, Lee invites Charlotte to the award ceremony. Their molly-fueled date is a thing of batshit beauty.
Things get serious between them in every sense of the word. The film, directed and cowritten with Marc Basch by Brett Haley (The New Year), is an unusually sugar-free rumination on the fleeting nature of fame, the dying of the light and the importance of honestly acknowledging another person's precariousness. My feeling is that doing so actually makes Charlotte the hero of this movie.
Rarely has a mainstream film taken as unflinching a look at aging and illness without losing its sense of humor. The scenes between Elliott and Prepon possess a quiet power, particularly one in which she reads Millay's "Dirge Without Music" to him.
Along with Morgan Freeman's, Elliott's voice may be among the human race's most recognizable. But here, the actor's eyes do all the talking. They speak volumes.