There’s nothing fresh about the story of a movie star facing down the barrel of mortality, but it’s comfortable terrain for writer-director Brett Haley. The filmmaker’s tender 2015 drama “I’ll See You In My Dreams” found Blythe Danner playing an ex-singer looking back on her life in somber terms; now, Haley sets his sights on Sam Elliott — who played Danner’s suave romantic interest in “Dreams” — for another melancholic character study about the tribulations of getting old. “The Hero” finds Elliott in a deeply contemplative role, riffing on his own career and delivering a touching meditation on fading stardom. Haley may traffic in traditional sentiment, but again the actors elevate it.
As the perennial cowboy figure, it’s been many years since Elliott’s iconic roles in “Lifeguard” and “Tombstone;” for younger generations, his iconic drawl may be most familiar as the rambling voiceovers in “The Big Lebowski.” That voice leads the way in “The Hero,” which opens with his character Lee Hayden rolling his eyes as he attempts to record a bland commercial for Lone Star BBQ. It’s the perfect scene-setter for a movie with one main storyline: Here is a talented man whom the world has forgotten.
Haley’s script wastes no time setting up the stakes. Within minutes, Lee has received a call from his agent about some nondescript lifetime achievement award — and then his doctor diagnoses him with pancreatic cancer. Retreating into denial (and a haze of pot smoke), Lee hides the news from his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and everyone else around him. Instead, he cloaks his bad luck in the lie that he plans to make another movie.
Much of “The Hero” is spent hanging out with Lee and exploring the limitations of his world. The actor spends much of his time smoking pot with an old acting buddy who’s now a drug dealer (Nick Offerman, doing wry monotony) and randomly encounters Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a mysterious younger woman with whom he develops a curious romantic bond. On a whim, he brings Charlotte as his date to the lifetime achievement ceremony, which leads to an unexpected drug-fueled evening as the pair’s chemistry starts to develop.
Well acted to a fault, this dynamic predictably leads to complications, with Lee questioning the much-younger Charlotte’s interest in him, and the revelation of her own performance career making their prospects even dicier. It’s an unsophisticated dynamic that remains watchable: Elliott’s tough exterior inevitably gives way to desperation, and the actor’s so skilled at conveying those subtleties that his expressions amount to a ticking time bomb. Set against the gorgeous scenery of the California coast, “The Hero” compliments Elliott’s performance with a backdrop that reflects his contemplative mood.
The character’s name, Lee Hayden, is an amalgam of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden — both of whom epitomize the male swagger of a different era and the dwindling opportunities for such faces as years go by. But while the character stems from a long tradition of struggling entertainers, “The Hero” lays out its cards early on, and never quite manages to build on them. Lee remains haunted by his mistakes, incapable of rejuvenating his bonds with his family or reigniting his career, and even the fleeting possibility of a second chance leads him down another depressing path of self-pity. Haley’s script doesn’t dig too deeply into this conundrum: The most Lee can offer is that he’s “a sad old pothead,” while Charlotte consoles him by saying that his one famous role “is about as close to immortality as you can get.”
The movie’s strongest moments involve an imaginary film shoot that takes place within the confines of Lee’s head; it’s here that Haley gets away from the story’s more obvious tropes in favor of an expressionistic approach to conveying Lee’s haunting relationship to missed opportunities as he contemplates his death. However, those same scenes are just compelling enough to make the simpler events of the main drama stand out. With Elliott front and center of every scene, “The Hero” pulls off the kind of acting showcase that its fictional star can never achieve.
“The Hero” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.