The Orchard

The Hero

The Hero

2.0 out of 52.0 out of 52.0 out of 52.0 out of 5 2.0

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With his sonorous voice and trademark horseshoe mustache, Sam Elliott has long been an icon of masculinity, a world-weary figure whose knowing smirk betrays a sly self-awareness beneath his rugged exterior. While he’s often been restricted to splashy but small supporting roles, The Hero casts him in the lead as Lee Hayden, a lonely old actor facing his own mortality after he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Peppered with references to Elliott’s own life and career (it opens on Lee recording a slogan for barbeque sauce in a playful nod to Elliott’s voiceover work for Coors, Ram trucks, and beef), the film has been designed not just as a vehicle for its venerable star, but as a comment on his long and not always auspicious career.

Lee at one point remarks that he’s done only one film he’s really proud of, a western (also called The Hero) that he made 40 years ago. By building a film entirely around Elliott’s grizzled persona, director Brett Haley attempts to do the same for the actor at the opposite end of his career: to provide a lasting showcase of the full range of his acting abilities. On that score, The Hero is a success, trading on Elliott’s grizzled cowboy persona while allowing him to hit subtler notes of self-doubt and melancholy—and even just plain goofiness in scenes of Lee and his buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman) sit around smoking weed, eating Chinese, and watching Buster Keaton movies. A scene in which Lee runs lines for a key role in a young-adult sci-fi movie rivals Naomi Watts’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive for show-stopping actorly virtuosity.

Unfortunately, Elliott’s calmly affecting performance is overwhelmed by a doggedly conventional screenplay that often plays like end-of-life wish-fulfillment fantasy. The film not only allows Lee the chance to make amends with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), and ex-wife, Valarie (Elliott’s real-life spouse Katharine Ross), it also pairs him with a much younger love interest, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who serves as a kind of surrogate daughter and wife rolled into one. An Edna St. Vincent Millay-quoting stand-up comedian with a thing for older guys, Charlotte is a too-cute contrivance who exists only to serve Lee’s needs. Languorous dream sequences of Lee on the set of a western and Zen-like pillow shots of L.A. traffic and crashing waves suggest a more mysterious and contemplative film struggling to break through the script’s run-of-the-mill plot complications and soppy emotional resolutions. Rather than truly probing the film’s potentially resonant themes of fame and mortality, Daley drowns them in canned sentimentality.

The Orchard
93 min
Brett Haley
Marc Basch, Brett Haley
Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross