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Sam Elliott gets a rare, welcome starring role in The Hero. Too bad it’s not worthy of him.

The beloved character actor plays a beloved Western actor facing his mortality.

Sam Elliott in The Hero
Sam Elliott in The Hero
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s always pure pleasure when Sam Elliott shows up on screen, whether he’s reminding us that “the Dude abides” or playing a former Marlboro Man. But though the veteran actor with a drawl as distinctive as his white mustache got his start back in 1969 alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he’s usually relegated to distinctive minor roles. Elliott is a character actor, and he’s great at it. But rarely is a whole movie built around him.

In Brett Haley’s The Hero, Elliott is finally the star — a welcome change. And the film certainly seems tailor-made for him, with elements that seem, if not actually autobiographical, at least completely plausible. (For instance, the movie starts with Elliott’s character recording endless voiceover takes for a Lone Star barbecue sauce ad, while in real life Elliott is highly recognizable for voicing the “beef — it’s what’s for dinner” ads.)

But while Elliott is great in The Hero, the rest of the film is curiously inert and predictable, as if it were assembled from a kit purchased down at the local Screenplays ’R’ Us. It’s not without charm, and Elliott’s performance keeps the thing afloat. It’s just hard not to wish he had been given more material to lean into.

Everything in The Hero is something you’ve seen before

The Hero belongs to a familiar genre: A once-famous man in his sunset years discovers the end is coming faster than he expected, thanks to a doctor’s diagnosis. This sudden realization triggers an existential crisis, prompting him to resolve broken relationships with an estranged child and an estranged ex-wife, and find new love along the way.

All of these elements appear in The Hero, with Krysten Ritter as the angry neglected adult daughter, Katharine Ross (who is married to Elliott in real life) as the ex-wife, and Laura Prepon as Charlotte, the age-inappropriate flame who breathes new life into Lee Hayden (Elliott) after meeting him by chance at the home of their mutual weed dealer and Lee’s friend Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Naturally, their age difference — and the jokes Charlotte cracks about it during a standup comedy set — is something Lee has to come to terms with as well.

Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in The Hero
Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in The Hero.

There are some fresh elements in The Hero, too. Lee has a recurring dream in the style of the old Western films he used to star in that propels the story along. And when he’s invited to receive a lifetime achievement award from a small association focused on Westerns — and brings Charlotte when his daughter refuses to accompany him — Lee gives a speech that goes unexpectedly viral, making him briefly a hot item again, though unfortunately without the sticking comeback power of someone like Betty White.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the basic fact that we see a movie much like The Hero at least once per year, and the premise is starting to feel a bit too well-worn; only four months ago, Robert De Niro took a similar turn as a potty-mouth shock comic in The Comedian. And while something like Birdman hit all the same story beats, but with a zany energy that propelled it in a new direction, The Hero feels staid and unimaginative. Of course there’s an estranged daughter. Of course the young, sassy woman is going to fall in love with him.

Genre conventions aren’t inherently bad, but they make The Hero flat

There’s nothing inherently wrong with retreading familiar genre conventions. That comforting familiarity is why many people watch movies. (There’s a reason the Hallmark Channel makes the same movie over and over, and keeps making a lot of money.)

Sam Elliott in The Hero
Sam Elliott in The Hero.

But with Elliott in the starring role, it feels like a wasted opportunity. Birdman — somewhat ironically, given its story — managed to push Michael Keaton back into the spotlight as an actor. Unfortunately, the thinness of The Hero gives Elliott little to work with, and he’s already a subtle actor, with a mustache and hound dog visage that tends to obscure facial expressions anyhow. It’s ultimately forgettable, and it seems unlikely that he’ll get much of a career boost from it.

Then again, the conclusion of The Hero seems to be that personal epiphanies and viral fame are good, but separate from career success, and that’s okay. If coming to terms with your mortality means becoming a good person (or at least a slightly better person), then that’s enough. You might never really be a hero, but you can at least try to play one.

The Hero opens in theaters on June 9.

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