Sam Elliott is living proof that some actors should be left outside to weather like firewood.
If you saw him in some of his early roles, back in the 1970s, he didn’t look like much — just another galoot in the background (or, as his character in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is called, “Card Player #2”). Somewhere along the line, he figured out that a big, bushy moustache might balance out the chin, that gray hair was sexy, that his voice should just go lower and lower until it sounded like whiskey.
The opening scenes of “The Hero” riff fondly on the star’s alternate career as a voice-over pitchman for TV commercials. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an aging Hollywood actor who had one hit movie decades ago and has been coasting ever since. In an LA sound studio, he intones a catch-phrase for a barbecue sauce — “it’s the perfect pardner fer your chicken” — as if he were John Wayne descending from the mount. And then he does it again. And again. It’s the only way he’ll get paid.
Lee’s an old hippie who got typecast in westerns and had a brush with fame; now he mostly hangs out in the Hollywood Hills smoking weed and watching Buster Keaton movies with his friend Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a fellow actor who in another lifetime played The Kid to Lee’s gunslinger. “The Hero” is wryly attuned to life in Lotusland when the cameras aren’t rolling: The endless days, the low-level anxiety about where the next paycheck is coming from, the spasms of hedonism, the boredom.
The movie’s directed and co-written by Brett Haley, who enjoyed working with Elliott so much on “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Haley’s 2015 career rejuvenator for Blythe Danner, that he went out and wrote a movie just for the actor. I’m not sure this director’s good for Elliott’s health: “Dreams” killed him off two-thirds of the way through and right off the bat in “The Hero,” Lee gets a dire medical prognosis that prompts a reappraisal. How do you think about wrapping up a life that never really amounted to much?
The movie’s mostly a series of encounters with the dramatic suspense of a day at the beach, but the performers make it worthwhile. Lee meets a younger woman at his pot dealer’s house and then bumps into her again at a food truck: Charlotte (Laura Prepon of “Orange Is the New Black”), a stand-up comedian but mostly a coaster like him. A romance ensues, taciturn, sweet, and surprisingly hot, and someday — just once — I’d like to see an American filmmaker do one of these where the woman’s the older party and the man’s the younger. (Haley came close in “Dreams” with Danner and Martin Starr but seemed to lose his nerve.)
No matter; Elliott’s and Prepon’s scenes work — it helps that her voice is almost as gravelly as his — and so do the scenes with Lee’s long-suffering ex-wife, played by an actress who, you realize with a start, is Katharine Ross, the onetime Elaine of “The Graduate” (and Sam Elliott’s own wife of 33 years). Krysten Ritter (TV’s “Jessica Jones”) is boxed into the underwritten role of Lee’s neglected daughter, though, and the third act complications and conflicts feel forced.
There is one quiet moment of glory. Through a fluke, Lee goes viral on social media and resurfaces in the culture; this leads to a movie audition, for which he prepares by reading the scene on Jeremy’s deck up in the hills. “The Hero” slows down and gathers us in, listening with a hush as Lee Hayden (or is it Sam Elliott?) uses his voice and bearing alone to take us back to an era when the movies felt like our national conscience.
The moment passes, but its memory lingers. “The Hero” may not be a great movie but it’s a welcome tribute to a lanky, taciturn presence — a love letter to an actor that reminds us of why we ought to love him, too.
Directed by Brett Haley. Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. R (drug use, language, some sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.