The Hero Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman. Directed by Brett Haley. Rated R. Opens Friday at Colonnade, South Point and Suncoast.
As he did with Blythe Danner in 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams, in The Hero director and co-writer Brett Haley builds a small-scale drama around a veteran character actor, in this case Sam Elliott (who had a supporting role in Dreams). The Hero is a bit heavier than Dreams, but also a bit less effective, trying too hard to impart deep meaning to its sometimes trite and predictable story.
Not surprisingly, its main asset is its rare lead performance from Elliott, who brings soul and sensitivity to the role of aging actor Lee Hayden, a onetime minor star of Westerns whose career currently consists mainly of voiceovers in TV commercials. He smokes pot with his fellow washed-up actor buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman), attempts to reach out to his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and mostly seems to be marking time until death.
That is until he gets an actual death sentence, a cancer diagnosis that, in an indie-drama cliché, he keeps to himself for almost the entire movie. Around the same time, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon) a much (much, much) younger stand-up comedian with whom he starts an unlikely affair. Haley makes the massive age difference into a plot point, but the romance is still awkward and halting, and the other plot threads are even sketchier, especially Lee’s unspecified difficulties with his daughter. Haley periodically cuts to surreal fantasy/dream sequences that mash up Lee’s fears of mortality with elements from his one acknowledged Western masterpiece (also titled The Hero), but he struggles to connect those to the more mundane drama surrounding them.
The movie’s best moments are its most casual, as Lee hangs out and reminisces with Jeremy, or engages in playful banter with Charlotte. Elliott is great in all of them, and he even imparts some depth to the uneven writing from Haley and Marc Basch. But one great performance is not enough to sell The Hero, and much like Lee Hayden, Elliott deserves a truly great movie if he’s going to take a victory lap, not this mushy bit of hero worship.