Sam Elliott’s visceral appeal is legend by now: the oak-aged baritone that suggests a creaking porch with a pleasant view, the cigarillo frame that’s just imposing enough, and a mustache that looks like it could tell its own tales. His gentlemanly appeal over decades has livened everything from westerns to animated movies, shaded both good guys and bad guys, and drawn laughs and swoons.
When he hawks beef, beer, or trucks, masculine America suddenly seems a force for good. And when he exhibited raw vulnerability as a lover from Lily Tomlin’s past in “Grandma” — primarily in just one scene — a lot of us thought, Is this Elliott’s time?
Writer-director Brett Haley apparently believes it is. He was shrewd enough to cast Elliott in a supporting role as a courtly suitor opposite lead Blythe Danner in that warm, sincere portrait of septuagenarian ennui, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and now Haley has put Elliott front and center for his opposite-gender follow-up, “The Hero.”
Trading slightly on the actor’s own longtime status as a taken-for-granted utility player in Hollywood, Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a has-been western actor relegated to voiceover work, smoking pot, and private re-watches of his big movie moment as the steely-eyed star of a famous horse opera called “The Hero.”
It’s a sturdy-enough set-up for what one assumes will be a study of male-pattern loneliness to match the female version in “Dreams.” But Haley’s obvious adoration didn’t translate into a noteworthy script. (It was written with his “Dreams” collaborator Marc Basch.) The unfortunate result is Elliott having to make meaningful hash out of a thinly drawn character, and cringe-worthy plotting even the AARP crowd who loves Elliott (and loved “Dreams”) is likely to roll their eyes over.
We meet Lee in the recording booth as he’s sonorously hawking barbecue sauce (“the perfect partner for your chicken”) and being asked to repeat the line over and over. It’s a piquant opening, rich with comic indignity. A call from his young-sounding agent informs Lee that a preservation guild of western aficonados wants to give him a lifetime achievement award, but Lee wants to know what the next acting gig will be. His face says it all: is everything about the past now?
There’s plenty of raw material here for the kind of ruminative portrait that Haley did so well previously with Danner: Lee’s divorce (his ex is played by Elliott’s real-life spouse Katharine Ross), his strained relationship with his adult daughter (Krysten Ritter), and his refuge in the company of Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a friendly weed dealer and ex-child actor with whom Lee once worked on a series.
But when Haley adds a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to Lee’s world of woe, “The Hero” starts its slow march into sentimental mediocrity. The time-is-short device is almost a disservice to Elliott’s lived-in chops, as if he were under the spotlight for an acting class exercise: “Okay, you just got a death sentence. Go!”
Even more problematic is the appearance at Jeremy’s house of a hard-edged, flirtatious young beauty named Charlotte, played by Laura Prepon. Their coy banter is efficiently handled, but it makes you think, Are we really going down that route, one that’s inspired so many exasperated pieces about grey-haired men paired with hot babes? (Answer: Yes, we are. Not only that, we don’t even find out what Charlotte does — she’s a comedian — until she’s well-served her purpose as a sexy love interest.)
A chance meet-up at a taco truck emboldens Lee to ask Charlotte to be his date for the award dinner; she spikes his champagne with molly pre-banquet, he finds a way to enjoy himself, and the soundtrack blasts a bland pop beat that suggests we’re suddenly in a run-of-the-mill feel-good movie. The upswing in his fortunes continue when his acceptance speech — in which he spontaneously gives the award to an adoring fan — goes viral, and his new heat secures him an offer to audition for a hot YA franchise movie.
At this point, there’s hardly a scene in the slowly paced “The Hero” that doesn’t telegraph where it’s going, including the eventual audition scene, which screams “breakdown” since the role Lee is up for is, surprise, that of an absent father. When he attends Charlotte’s stand-up act, it’s all too predictable what reaction her crassly jokey, ripped-from-real-life material (“older guys are awesome!”) is going to engender in a man with a shaky grip on the future.
That Elliott handles it all as well as possible is no shock, but it leaves you wanting more from a movie written expressly for him. It’s as if Haley viewed his star’s strengths — laconic wit, unforced masculinity, polite romanticism — as the only elements needed for a Sam Elliott showcase, rather than as the building blocks from which to mold an original character. Even Haley’s stabs at arty interludes (crashing surfs, are-they-real-or-not excerpts from Lee’s western movies) fall flat.
“The Hero” ends as “Dreams” did, with a younger companion reciting thematically appropriate verse to the main character. In this case, it’s Charlotte reading Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem is lovely (“I am not resigned …”) but the title is unintentionally appropriate: “Dirge Without Music.”