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June 18, 2017

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‘Hero’ Elliot shines but film disappoints

AT the beginning of “The Hero,” Lee Hayden, the aging Hollywood Western actor played by Sam Elliott, is recording a radio spot for barbecue sauce. And he’s really, really good at it.

“Lone Star barbecue sauce,” he intones, in a deep, luxuriant drawl that sounds just like, well, Sam Elliott. “The perfect pardner for your chicken.”

You’d buy it in a second, even if you didn’t like barbecue sauce. Then again, Elliott — with his relaxed, confident presence and silvery, 72-year-old good looks — could pretty much sell us anything. And though in his long career he’s never really been a lead actor, a little Elliott goes a long way.

In Brett Haley’s “The Hero,” Elliott finally has a film all his own, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity, giving an appealing, honest and nuanced portrayal of an aging actor facing a life crisis. If only the script were a match for Elliott’s performance. It ends up feeling more like an extended sketch than a full-blown film — and an oddly trite, formulaic one at that. Elliott may excel at playing a man of few words, but that doesn’t mean the script should be lacking in ideas.

We meet Lee as he’s facing a crossroads in life. Divorced, and distant from his adult daughter, he lives a solitary existence in Malibu, his only friend seemingly his fellow actor, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), who doubles as his drug dealer. It’s been decades — four, in fact — since he made a movie that he’s proud of, a Western of course. Sometimes, he dreams of wandering around that old movie set.

His agent calls to say Lee has been chosen for a lifetime achievement award from something called the Western Appreciation Guild. This rather strange career milestone comes at a sticky time for Lee. He’s also received a call from his doctor, with frightening medical news. It’s all making him look back at his life, and wonder how much there is to actually appreciate.

Enter Charlotte (Laura Prepon, of “Orange is the New Black”), the appealing, wisecracking, poetry-loving younger woman he meets at Jeremy’s house as she pops in for an illicit purchase. Charlotte, a standup comic, takes an immediate shine to Lee, despite the obvious age gap. He’s attracted to her, but not sure about that age thing. But Lee needs a date for the lifetime achievement dinner. When his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) demurs, he turns to Charlotte.


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