At the beginning of "The Hero," Lee Hayden, the aging Hollywood Western actor played by Sam Elliott, is recording a radio spot for barbecue sauce. And he's really, really good at it.
"Lone Star barbecue sauce," he intones, in a deep, luxuriant drawl that sounds just like, well, Sam Elliott. "The perfect pardner for your chicken."
You'd buy it in a second, even if you didn't like barbecue sauce. Then again, Elliott — with his relaxed, confident presence and silvery, 72-year-old good looks — could pretty much sell us anything. And though in his long career he's never really been a lead actor, a little Elliott goes a long way.
Take his cameo appearance in "Grandma" in 2015, playing just one scene as an old flame of Lily Tomlin's character. The mood shifts alone in that scene, with two great actors each upping the ante, made it a master class in acting.
Now, in Brett Haley's "The Hero," Elliott finally has a film all his own, and he doesn't squander the opportunity, giving an appealing, honest and nuanced portrayal of an aging actor facing a life crisis. If only the script were a match for Elliott's performance. It ends up feeling more like an extended sketch than a full-blown film — and an oddly trite, formulaic one at that. Elliott may excel at playing a man of few words, but that doesn't mean the script should be lacking in ideas.
We meet Lee as he's facing a crossroads in life. Divorced, and distant from his adult daughter, he lives a solitary existence in Malibu, his only friend seemingly his fellow actor, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), who doubles as his drug dealer. It's been decades — four, in fact — since he made a movie that he's proud of, a Western of course. Sometimes, he dreams of wandering around that old movie set.
His agent calls, but he doesn't have a job to offer. Seems Lee has been chosen for a lifetime achievement award from something called the Western Appreciation Guild.
This rather strange career milestone comes at a sticky time for Lee. He's also received a call from his doctor, with frightening medical news. It's all making him look back at his life, and wonder how much there is to actually appreciate.
Enter Charlotte (Laura Prepon, of "Orange is the New Black"), the appealing, wisecracking, poetry-loving younger woman he meets at Jeremy's house as she pops in for an illicit purchase. Charlotte, a standup comic, takes an immediate shine to Lee, despite the obvious age gap. He's attracted to her, but not sure about that age thing.
But Lee needs a date for the lifetime achievement dinner. When his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) demurs, he turns to Charlotte. She's game for pretty much anything, and to pep up the evening, she pops a little pill into Lee's pre-dinner drink. He's particularly loose when he shows up for the big event, and makes a grand gesture at the dinner that goes viral and launches him back onto the pop culture front burner.
But all is not hunky dory. An audition goes awry. And the budding relationship with Charlotte proves tricky.
It's tempting to give more detail here, but that would be giving away too much, because, honestly, there's not a whole lotta there there. This is no fault of Elliott, who remains genuine and absorbing throughout. The supporting performances — from the lovely Prepon, who has a few meaty scenes, to Ritter and Katharine Ross, Elliott's real-life wife, who have much less to do — are right on target. But the actors deserve more to work with.
The irony of the title here, of course, is that Elliott has never really played the hero of his own movie. This one's a start. Here's hoping he'll get some better material to pardner with.
"The Hero," an Orchard release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for drug use, language and some sexual content." Running time: 93 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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