With his sonorous voice and trademark horseshoe mustache, Sam Elliott has long been an icon of masculinity, a world-weary figure whose knowing smirk betrays a sly self-awareness beneath his rugged exterior. While he’s often been restricted to splashy but small supporting roles, The Hero casts him in the lead as Lee Hayden, a lonely old actor facing his own mortality after he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Peppered with references to Elliott’s own life and career (it opens on Lee recording a slogan for barbeque sauce in a playful nod to Elliott’s voiceover work for Coors, Ram trucks, and beef), the film has been designed not just as a vehicle for its venerable star, but as a comment on his long and not always auspicious career.
Lee at one point remarks that he’s done only one film he’s really proud of, a western (also called The Hero) that he made 40 years ago. By building a film entirely around Elliott’s grizzled persona, director Brett Haley attempts to do the same for the actor at the opposite end of his career: to provide a lasting showcase of the full range of his acting abilities. On that score, The Hero is a success, trading on Elliott’s grizzled cowboy persona while allowing him to hit subtler notes of self-doubt and melancholy—and even just plain goofiness in scenes of Lee and his buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman) sit around smoking weed, eating Chinese, and watching Buster Keaton movies. A scene in which Lee runs lines for a key role in a young-adult sci-fi movie rivals Naomi Watts’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive for show-stopping actorly virtuosity.
Unfortunately, Elliott’s calmly affecting performance is overwhelmed by a doggedly conventional screenplay that often plays like end-of-life wish-fulfillment fantasy. The film not only allows Lee the chance to make amends with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), and ex-wife, Valarie (Elliott’s real-life spouse Katharine Ross), it also pairs him with a much younger love interest, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who serves as a kind of surrogate daughter and wife rolled into one. An Edna St. Vincent Millay-quoting stand-up comedian with a thing for older guys, Charlotte is a too-cute contrivance who exists only to serve Lee’s needs. Languorous dream sequences of Lee on the set of a western and Zen-like pillow shots of L.A. traffic and crashing waves suggest a more mysterious and contemplative film struggling to break through the script’s run-of-the-mill plot complications and soppy emotional resolutions. Rather than truly probing the film’s potentially resonant themes of fame and mortality, Daley drowns them in canned sentimentality.