Film and TV

Sam Elliott is Sublime, But Old-Dude-Feels-Sad Drama The Hero Isn’t

You could always do worse than looking at Sam Elliott.
You could always do worse than looking at Sam Elliott. The Orchard
It's only after three encounters, a night on molly, a blow-up argument, an impassioned recitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "First Fig," and some tender May-December — late December — sex that Sam Elliott's The Hero character can be bothered to ask what Laura Prepon's does for a living. Turns out she's a comedian, with a show that very night. And it turns out that the plot of this latest maudlin study of a magnetic old fellow will concern his learning to accept that she's going to joke onstage about his septuagenarian balls. Learning to Accept could be the title of most of the films in this genre: Like Robert De Niro in The Comedian or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Elliott plays an old salt out of time, alienated from his family, cranky and clueless about the world he's had the good fortune to thrive in.

Eventually, after the first act's almost ritualized humiliations, he gets promisingly laid and learns life is worth living even if everything's not as it once was. After some sex and some shame, the brat will even by the end make a concession toward being a better person. Essentially, these movies are old-dude versions of Girls. (And, as in The Comedian, we get painful scenes of characters explaining to the lead what it means that he’s accidentally gone viral.)

Elliott plays a beloved film star, and he remains the prototypical easygoing real-man charmer, so his hooking up with a beauty so many decades younger than him is at least plausible. (Have you seen who old actor dudes date?) Both performers prove more interesting than their material, and when the script flags — Prepon actually has to look at him at their characters’ first meeting and note, quietly moved, "You seem sad" — at least viewers have lots of time to regard four of the most fascinating eyebrows Hollywood has to offer. That number's bumped to six in a pair of thankless scenes with Krysten Ritter as the great man's daughter, who, as you might guess, has been let down by him over the years but is one good cry away from loving him anew. Elliott's character is facing treatments for pancreatic cancer, and he's too chickenshit to tell his family. When he confesses at last to his ex-wife (Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life spouse), his only AARP-aged scene partner, the movie cuts away before we can hear her response. It's as if the producers believe that viewers just won't tolerate hearing a woman her age speak. (Director Brett Haley also made 2015’s I'll See You in My Dreams, a jewel of a romance starring Blythe Danner and Elliott, so I have to assume this isn’t his insult.)

Nick Offerman is woozily funny as the hero's drug dealer, but a late-movie mushroom trip is a letdown: All Haley can come up with to suggest this last hero's journey is magic-hour shrub photography and some lens flares. Elliott is compelling throughout, of course, despite the scenario's weariness. He speaks the way Monument Valley would if it could, though that hasn’t obliged the writers here to think of interesting things for him to say.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl