Writer/director Brett Haley's ("I’ll See You in My Dreams") latest feature finds mostly forgotten cowboy actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) in the midst of an existential crisis. Literally, Lee will cease to exist in a matter of months if he declines treatment for his cancer. And why go through the bother of treatment? Lee doesn't figure in the lives of his ex-wife (Katharine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter), probably as a result of ghosting them years before. It seems as if the only person who might notice if Lee disappeared altogether is his drug dealer friend (Nick Offerman).
It's at the drug dealer's Malibu pad that Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), the type of cat-eyel-eyeliner-lidded, tattooed Gen X hipster who wears a uniform of bemused cynicism like some women wear Chanel No. 5—the base layer isn't musk; it's irony. (It's the same character Prepon has essentially been playing since she returned to contemporary times after her television breakthrough in "That '70s Show.") Of course, she and Lee hit it off immediately.
On their first date, Lee invites Charlotte to a chintzy ceremony held by a small but earnest group Western fans. He's there to accept a lifetime achievement award based on a movie in which he played an anonymous cowboy referred to only as The Hero, but not before Charlotte spikes their champagne with the psychoactive drug MDMA. Bolstered by the euphoria caused by the drug, Lee invites one of the fans up on stage with him, a moment which instantly goes viral, giving him new cachet in Hollywood.
Although it was filmed more than 50 years ago, Lee still dreams about embodying The Hero. And it's those scenes, shot in earthy colors in beautiful widescreen by director of photography Rob C. Givens, that provide a visual poetry for the film. But despite hinting at understanding the relationship between dreams and movies, Haley, along with co-writer Marc Basch, do most of the heavy lifting in the temporal narrative, preferring punchlines over emotional wallops. Real hits to the gut, such as when Charlotte uses the details of Lee's ageing body for her standup routine, are quickly smoothed over in the dash toward a tidy and happy ending.
After working with Elliott on his previous feature, Haley wrote this specifically for the sonorous basso, who has made a career late in his life out of little more than an iconic mustache and the cultural bias that bestows authority on the lines he delivers in that unmistakable laid-back and folksy manner. From The Stranger in The Big Lebowski to the voice of the beef lobby that tells us what's for dinner, the character actor has been playing the guru of plain talk for decades. Still, despite the film's failings, it's a relief to finally see Elliott in a role in which he has more questions than answers.