Un­der­rated Sam El­liott shines in over­due show­case

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Jo­ce­lyn Noveck

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.

Take his cameo ap­pear­ance in “Grandma” in 2015, play­ing just one scene as an old flame of Lily Tom­lin’s char­ac­ter. The mood shifts alone in that scene, with two great ac­tors each up­ping the ante, made it a mas­ter class in act­ing.

Now, 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 full­blown film, and a 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, Calif., his only friend seem­ingly his fel­low ac­tor Jeremy (Nick Of­fer- MPAA rat­ing: R (for drug use, language and some sex­ual con­tent) Run­ning time: 1:33 man), 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.

His agent calls, but he doesn’t have a job to of­fer. Seems Lee has been cho­sen for a life­time achieve­ment award from some­thing called the Western Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Guild.

This strange 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, po­et­rylov­ing younger woman he meets at Jeremy’s house as she pops in for an il­licit pur­chase. Char­lotte, a stand-up 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. She’s game for pretty much any­thing, and to pep up the evening she pops a pill into Lee’s pre-din­ner drink. He’s par­tic­u­larly loose when he shows up for the event and makes a grand ges­ture at the din­ner that goes vi­ral and launches him back onto the pop culture front burner.

But all is not hunky dory. An au­di­tion goes awry. And the bud­ding re­la­tion­ship with Char­lotte proves tricky.

It’s tempt­ing to give more de­tail here, but that would be giv­ing away too much, be­cause, hon­estly, there’s not a whole lotta there there. This is no fault of El­liott, who re­mains gen­uine and ab­sorb­ing through­out. The sup­port­ing per­for­mances — from the lovely Pre­pon, who has a few meaty scenes, to Rit­ter and Katharine Ross, El­liott’s real-life wife, who have much less to do — are right on tar­get. But the ac­tors de­serve more to work with.

The irony of the ti­tle here, of course, is that El­liott has never re­ally played the hero of his own movie. This one’s a start. Here’s hop­ing he’ll get some bet­ter ma­te­rial to pard­ner with.

BETH DUBBER/SUN­DANCE IN­STI­TUTE

Sam El­liott plays an ag­ing Hol­ly­wood Western ac­tor who reaches a daunt­ing cross­roads in his life.

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