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In ‘The Hero,’ Sam Elliott delivers a heroic performance

In “The Hero,” Lee (Sam Elliott) was known for his work in iconic Westerns, but that was all a long time ago.
In “The Hero,” Lee (Sam Elliott) was known for his work in iconic Westerns, but that was all a long time ago. Sundance Institute

Some of us would be content to watch Sam Elliott, he of the sonorous voice and luxurious ’stache, sit in a lawn chair reading the phone book.

It doesn’t quite come to that in “The Hero,” one of Elliott’s rare starring roles, though Brett Haley’s film recycles plot points that have been picked over so many times there’s not much meat left.

No, the reason to watch “Hero” is, quite simply, Sam Elliott, who at age 72 exudes more raw charisma and sex appeal than actors a fraction of his age.

This is what I want to be when I grow up.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a white-haired actor who back in the ’70s was the star of Westerns. Lee’s career, though, has faded with the popularity of the cinematic oater. As “The Hero” begins he’s doing commercial voice-over work: “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce: The perfect pardner for your chicken.”

Whoa. Deja vu all over again. Remember Elliott’s distinctive voice telling us in radio ads: “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner”? This is just the first time “The Hero” will dip into the meta pool, drawing on Elliott’s own career to create his onscreen character.

Early on in Haley and co-writer Marc Basch’s screenplay Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer. As Samuel Johnson observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Slowly, hesitantly, painfully, Lee attempts to reach out to those who have meant something to him but whom he has ignored in recent years, especially his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, the real-life Mrs. Elliott) and his embittered grown daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter, star of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”).

In truth, Lee’s only friend appears to be his pot dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former actor who lives in a cannabis haze watching Buster Keaton comedies. Not the worst lifestyle.

Aside from the dying-guy scenario, “The Hero” concentrates mostly on Lee’s burgeoning romance with Charlotte (“Orange Is the New Black’s” Laura Prepon), a woman half his age who appears one day in Jeremy’s marijuana den looking to score. Turns out Charlotte is a stand-up comic who can match Lee for world-weary repartee and seems to have a thing for old guys, incorporating jokes about wrinkled body parts in her onstage routine.

Lee never tells the other people in his life that he’s dying. He’d rather build relationship bridges without everything dissolving into a pity party. A guy’s gotta keep his dignity.

And, weirdly enough, he starts getting nibbles for his long-gestating plan to make and star in one last Western. It will be called “The Hero,” and from time to time we get brief snippets of this dream project. Few humans look as good in cowboy hat and boots as Sam Elliott.

Again, there’s nothing particularly original about “The Hero’s” setup or execution. It’s never truly funny, truly dramatic, truly touching.

But watching Elliott do his laconic thing for 90 minutes is enough to make us rue the Hollywood that saw him mostly as a character actor, rarely a hero.

(At Glenwood Arts, Studio 28, Tivoli.)

Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘The Hero’

  1/2

Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content.

Time: 1:33.

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