I’d hazard a guess that I’m comfortably in the majority when I say that I’ve always harbored a deep affinity for Sam Elliot. For nearly five decades Elliot has perfected the laconic delivery and pensive pauses that define his onscreen persona, and as I’m writing this I’m struggling to think of a performance he’s delivered that I don’t like. It’s not that he’s always great, but he’s never unwatchable. And that’s fortunate because Elliot’s charisma is essentially the only thing holding together director Brett Haley’s strained sunset-years wish-fulfillment dram-com, The Hero.
Elliot always seems to be playing some version of himself, and here that’s literally the case in his turn as fading star Lee Hayden, best-known for a career in Westerns that dried up 40 years ago. Now he’s relegated to voicing commercials for barbecue sauce and accepting meaningless lifetime achievement awards when he’s not getting high with his former co-star and current drug dealer (Nick Offerman). A cancer diagnosis, an unlikely May-December romance with a comedian sporting some serious daddy issues (Laura Prepon) and an unexpected viral video disrupt Lee’s status quo, but nothing much comes of it — by which I mean the closest thing this film has to a catharsis is Lee’s decision to finally undergo treatment for his cancer.
The cast is easily the strongest point in The Hero’s favor, but the actors can’t quite make up for the aimlessness of Haley and co-writer Marc Basch’s meandering script. The affable chemistry between Elliot and Offerman is undeniable, Prepon is passable (though almost unrecognizable, her hair dyed Hot Topic black), and Krysten Ritter delivers a crushing third act monologue as Lee’s estranged daughter. (One wonders how much her relationship with her own father, the late John Ritter, colored her delivery.) But ultimately, their characters as rendered by Haley and Busch are little more than two-dimensional narrative propulsion devices, simply there to deliver exposition and prompt Lee along his nebulous hero’s journey.
If one were to base expectations on the film’s dynamic first act, The Hero would seem poised to function as a satirical metacommentary on a leading man aging gracelessly in Hollywood — a much more intriguing prospect than anything this picture actually delivers. When the dreaded second-act-slump sets in as inexorably and intractably as Lee’s cancer, the promise of The Hero’s comedic potential dissipates faster than a cloud of weed smoke. Much like its protagonist, the film isn’t sure what it wants to be and is running out of time to figure it out.
The Hero is too sparse on jokes to be a comedy, too lacking in narrative tension to qualify as a drama. That said, Elliot is at the top of his game, and his performance alone warrants a qualified recommendation. It may not be the starring vehicle Elliot deserves, but it’s the one we’ve got — which is better than nothing. But when the film comes full circle to Elliot’s Lee once again drawling his way through yet another barbecue commercial, he’s not the only one wondering if it all meant anything. Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.