If a 60-foot saguaro cactus could talk, it would almost certainly sound like Sam Elliott. At 72 years old, the lanky character actor has played his share of bikers, hippies, and cowboys, but never the hero — at least, never on the level of Lee Hayden, the faded-glory Western star he portrays in Brett Haley’s “The Hero.” This affectionately crafted project offers Elliott the most substantial big-screen role of his career, though sadly, that’s not saying an awful lot for an actor who was passed over to play Indiana Jones, and is instead best known for drawling such catchphrases as “The Dude abides” and “Beef: It’s what for dinner.”
Fortunately for Elliott, “The Hero” targets those old enough to remember his early roles (like the clean-shaven card sharp in the opening scene of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,”) and particularly memorable later ones (the silver-‘stashed seducer in Haley’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams”). As a follow-up to “Dreams,” this film is likely to earn Elliott the best reviews of his career, even if the character doesn’t feel much deeper than any other he’s played.
That’s because instead of fleshing out Lee’s backstory, Haley and co-writer Marc Basch treat Elliott like a star, encouraging him to flaunt the qualities that have defined him as a character actor — the wet-gravel voice, that slowest-draw-in-the-West kind of nonchalance — in much the same way Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson incorporate their signature personae into their performances. Trouble is, Elliott isn’t a star. He’s a “leave them wanting more” kind of screen presence, most memorable in supporting roles (like recent indie gem “Grandma”). Watching Elliott try to carry an entire film, you can’t help but wonder how much richer it might be in the hands of an actor like Gene Hackman, or Robert Duvall, or even Bruce Dern, who gnawed his way through a similar sunset role in “Nebraska” a few years back.
But Elliott isn’t the problem. In fact, he deserves better. Haley and Basch have mistaken what the AARP calls “movies for grownups” for a kind of mushy feel-good pablum, throwing together a handful of familiar clichés in the hope that Elliott’s charm will carry the day. In a scene that was likely inspired by Elliott’s own experiences, we meet Lee, an actor, in the recording booth, where a clueless sound engineer asks him to recite the advertising tagline, “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce, the perfect pardner for your chicken,” ad nauseum.
The final scene finds Lee back in the same booth, and it’s the movie’s simple-minded idea of irony: Though Hayden’s surly, stuck-in-his-ways character undergoes a satisfyingly transformative arc over the course of the film — including facing the potential death sentence of a cancer diagnosis and attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) — all of this personal progress finds him right back where he started.
But it’s all about the journey, and this relatively predictable one moves in slow-motion, between the already-protracted way Elliott saunters through dialogue and Haley’s decision to cast him as a melancholy old pothead. Instead of the usual page-per-minute of screen time, this film feels like a 30-page script stretched to 90-odd minutes.
Already self-medicating with marijuana, Lee is reluctant to seek treatment for his pancreatic cancer, the low survival rate of which forces him to confront all the unfinished business in his life — from emotional wounds left festering since he walked out on his family to the fact that he hasn’t made a movie he’s proud of in 40 years. His agent doesn’t have much work to offer, but there’s a lifetime achievement award from a small-time Western movie appreciation society, and Lee agrees to attend. When his daughter declines to be his “plus one,” he invites Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a sexy-looking stranger he met through his pot supplier — and only friend — Jeremy (Nick Offerman).
Does a relationship sparked at a drug dealer’s house offer real potential? Comedic potential, perhaps, though its romantic prospects aren’t so bright. On the limo ride to the award show, Charlotte sprinkles Ecstasy in the couple’s champagne flutes, and a short time later, the drugs kick in, leading to a scene that, while not especially funny in the present, becomes a viral sensation after someone uploads a recording to YouTube, briefly igniting fresh interest in Lee within the industry.
Out-of-touch movies frequently jump-start stalled-actor characters with such lame stunts (see “The Comedian” … or better yet, don’t see “The Comedian”), but real life doesn’t work that way. Nor do dreams unfold like deleted scenes from old movies, as they do here — representing the only moments that warrant a widescreen format otherwise at odds with Haley’s closeup-happy shooting style. It’s as if he believes that by getting close, he’ll penetrate some emotional level his stoic leading man so subtly underplays.
While not only capable of, but quite accustomed to, doing much with very little, Elliott deserves a showcase role — although it would be nice to see one that gives him more of an opportunity to stretch. In “The Hero,” he’s essentially playing the guy we all imagine him to be, sharing the screen with real-life wife Katharine Ross as the woman his character abandoned, and probably never deserved in the first place.
After all, it’s one thing to see a bona fide movie star self-deprecatingly play this kind of late-career malcontent, the way Michael Keaton did in “Birdman,” and quite another to watch someone most audiences think of as “that guy” — as in, “that guy who played Cher’s biker boyfriend in ‘Mask,’” or “ that guy who came to Patrick Swayze’s rescue in ‘Road House’” — trying to convince us he’s an icon in the James Coburn or Lee Marvin mold. Still, with that signature drawl, Elliott could coax errant tumbleweeds to a halt, and while this hero’s journey that isn’t nearly as poetic as it ought to be, the movie teases with the notion of how the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay might sound in his voice. We can always hope he agrees to read the tie-in audiobook.