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  • Slight as it is, Brett Haley’s The Hero is an affectionate tribute and unabashed appreciation of Sam Elliott who, even after nearly 50 years in the business, still remains a sorely undervalued treasure. Elliott has played everything from cowboys (Tombstone’s Virgil Earp) to villains (his silkily menacing turn as Avery Markham in FX’s Justified) to, most recently, silver-foxed heartthrob in Haley’s previous film, I’ll See You in My Dreams.

    Of course, one of Elliott’s best-known roles was as The Big Lebowski’s narrator and it is that deep rumble of a voice that opens The Hero as his character, Lee Hayden, goes through the motions of recording lines for a Lone Star BBQ commercial. A Western icon whose heyday has long since past, Lee is suddenly confronted with his mortality when his agent tells him that he’s to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild and, more significantly, when his doctor diagnoses him with pancreatic cancer. Lee’s first instinct is to disregard the former and deny the latter, choosing instead to share a joint with friend/former co-star/drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman).

    It’s during one marijuana session with Jeremy that Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a thirtysomething stand-up comic with whom he shares an instant attraction. Though we’ve seen the May-December romance many a time, the relationship between Lee and Charlotte still feels fresh and engaging thanks to Elliott and Prepon, who create strong and sexy sparks. Yet Haley and co-writer Marc Basch truss it with some hokey elements such as Charlotte quoting her favourite poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lee’s acceptance speech going viral, and Lee attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). The reconciliation, in particular, feels so underdeveloped that one wonders if scenes were left on the cutting floor.

    Yet, as always, Elliott is the saving grace, imbuing that baritone of a voice and that well-lived face with mischief, weariness, hope, and regret. The power of Charlotte reading one of Millay’s poems, for example, derives from the emotions that trickle then waterfall on Elliott’s visage. Though Haley the screenwriter may indulge in fuss, Haley the director knows how to exercise restraint such as in the scene when Lee finally reveals his diagnosis to his former wife, played by Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross, or the moment when Lee struggles through an audition having nailed the scene during a run-through with Jeremy, underplaying the moments so beautifully that they become all the more moving and melancholic.

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