At almost 72, onetime cowboy-movie star Lee Hayden faces the afflictions of age: loneliness, a fading career, dwindling sexual magnetism, and the fear that his relationship with his daughter is unsalvageable.
Also, he might be dying.
It's a cancer diagnosis that compels the lackadaisical Lee (Sam Elliott) to focus on the big issues in The Hero, a ruefully comic drama that observes a few days of his post-celebrity existence. But it's a younger woman, unsurprisingly, who reenergizes him.
Directed and co-written by Brett Haley, The Hero is a bespoke vehicle for Elliott, who had a supporting role in the filmmaker's previous movie, I'll See You in My Dreams. Most of its plot elements are overly familiar, but they're invigorated by Elliott's easygoing performance and the way Haley deploys them in explicit homage to his muse. (Or muses, since the name of Elliott's character combines those of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden.)
With Elliott, the rugged visage — even the luxuriant mustache — is less iconic than the weathered voice. Haley emphasizes both that and Lee's diminished career by opening the movie in a recording studio where the former movie star is recording tag lines for a barbecue-sauce ad. He has just the wood-smoked tones for the pitch.
In recent years, Elliott has played the old boyfriend of such counterculture veterans as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. So perhaps it shouldn't surprise that The Hero is one of the druggiest Hollywood movies in years. The Malibu cowboy spends a lot of time with former co-star Jeremy (a becalmed Nick Offerman), who's forsaken acting for the more reliable trade of dope-dealing. The two enjoy sharing joints, listening to reggae, and watching Buster Keaton movies.
It's at Jeremy's that Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a peppery standup comic who's about half his age. The two have an odd chemistry, catalyzed by his fame and her caginess.
When Lee is tapped to receive an award from a group of Old West buffs, he ponders inviting skeptical ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, Elliott's real-life spouse) or resentful grown daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Neither of those options click, so Lee impulsively asks Charlotte. Not only does she agree, she provides the MDMA that spurs Lee to give a wacky acceptance speech that becomes a YouTube hit. Will resurgent celebrity renew his career?
That plot strand is the least convincing one, but it or something like it is necessary to the concept: a legendary tough guy encounters his vulnerability. The director also gives Lee dreams that mingle his current life (and eventual death) with scenes from his biggest and best movie — also titled The Hero, of course. These moderately surreal inserts suggest a Clint Eastwood remake of Fellini's 8 1/2.
Although the age gap between Lee and Charlotte is altogether typical of films about spiritually adrift men, the couple's tentative relationship is the movie's best-realized aspect. Impressively for such a movie, Charlotte pursues her own agenda, whether using the fling as material for her comedy act or — in a beautifully believable moment — re-gifting a book she feels Lee didn't appreciate enough the first time.
The crusty loner turns out to need the young woman's guidance, but The Hero isn't a tale of redemption or transformation. It's a cowboy picture, which means its laconic protagonist doesn't change all that much before he ambles out of the frame.