There is one reason to see “The Hero,” and that is star Sam Elliott. In the film, the character played by Elliott is described as standing out for “his unmistakable voice, [and] his iconic mustache.”
Yes, that sounds a lot like Elliott. With his lanky frame, piercing eyes and knowing grin, the actor looks like a Western icon even when he’s not playing a Western icon. See Elliott’s turns in such diverse fare as “Road House,” “Gettysburg,” “Hulk” and “Up in the Air” for examples.
In “The Hero,” however, he is playing a Western icon. While it might be typecasting, there is something satisfying about seeing this actor in this role. The audience has an innate desire to hear the voice from “The Big Lebowski” and, err, beef commercials, especially when a film is as self-aware as this one. It even opens with Elliott’s Lee Hayden recording a barbecue sauce commercial.
Director Brett Haley’s previous film, 2015’s “I'll See You in My Dreams,” was very similar. Elliott co-starred in “Dreams,” which featured a luminescent Blythe Danner as a widow exploring new romance.
“Dreams” was a more entertaining film. Yet “The Hero” is more emotionally resonant, perhaps because the stakes are elevated. It’s a good film, and never a great one, but it provides Elliott with his juiciest role in years. The actor runs with it, giving an arguably awards-worthy performance.
Lee is a fading star, one whose most iconic roles are behind him. The scripts aren’t coming and the phone isn’t ringing, which is perhaps why he sends so much of his time smoking pot with his friend Jeremy (a droll Nick Offerman).
But when Lee learns he has pancreatic cancer, life becomes a bit more urgent. He knows, for example, that it’s time to reach out to his daughter (Krysten Ritter, rather wasted in a small part).
Lee meets a whip-smart stand-up comic (Laura Prepon plays Charlotte), and the two have crackling chemistry. (Lee: “If you were 20 years older I’d kiss you.” Charlotte: “I gotta wait 20 years? You’ll be dead in 20 years.”)
With a little help from Charlotte, a video of Lee goes viral — the most overused plot element in recent cinema — and suddenly, the world is interested again. But navigating these new opportunities is not easy, especially for someone as world-weary as Lee Hayden.
The script co-written by director Haley is not particularly original, but the performances from Elliott, Prepon, Offerman and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katherine Ross, as his ex, are exquisite.
These performances are what audiences will respond to. Indeed, “The Hero” has been a surprise box office success in limited release. As “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Grandma” and “Hello, My Name is Doris” proved, there is an audience for humor-tinged character dramas handled with maturity and poise.
“The Hero” does not stick the landing; it ends with a bit of a whimper. But from start to finish, Elliott mesmerizes. There is a scene late in the film in which Lee breaks down while auditioning for a big-budget film. It’s some of the finest work of Elliott’s career — wounded, vulnerable and wise.
That scene alone almost justifies the existence of “The Hero.” There are no surprises here, and the whole affair is a bit too modest. But Elliott’s voice and his face have a lived-in quality that is unforgettable. The actor makes “The Hero” an enjoyable, worthy drama.
3 stars (out of 4)
Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon and Krysten Ritter star in film about an ailing movie star who comes to terms with his past and mortality. 93 minutes. Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content.