“The Hero” begins with Sam Elliott’s character, a veteran actor, reading a voice-over about barbecue sauce, and that’s when it hit me: Sam Elliott’s voice is barbecue sauce. Pour it on any movie — and oh, that voice does pour, in thick, velvety dollops — and it tastes better.
Not that “The Hero” would taste terrible without him, but it might have felt a little generic; this is the sort of small-scale story of a Man Looking Back On His Choices that you’ve probably seen before. Lee Hayden (like Elliott, for whom the role was written) is known for his work in iconic movie Westerns, but life has taken a few unexpected turns; he’s now divorced (his ex is played by Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife), estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter) and spends his not-too-busy days smoking weed with a pal (Nick Offerman). A cancer diagnosis, at the beginning of the film, changes his life, as does a relationship with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comedian who’s much younger than Lee.
The movie isn’t particularly interested in its supporting characters, particularly Charlotte, whose complexities are mostly just hinted at. Instead, it plants its gaze on Lee — and on Elliott, who takes “The Hero” in his hands and makes something quietly moving from it. The burnished darkness of the voice is, of course, at the forefront, but what’s lovely in this performance is often Elliott’s silences. Writer/director Brett Haley lets the actor take his time, and so we watch Elliott thoughtfully listening, being changed by what he hears, finding poetry in quiet gaze.
“Movies are other people’s dreams,” Lee says at one point; this one, it seems, was Haley’s dream of showcasing Elliott as the leading man he so rarely has been allowed to be. You wish the movie surrounding him was a little more memorable, but it doesn’t matter; that barbecue sauce — and the actor possessing it — makes “The Hero” delicious.
Rated: R for drug use, language and some sexual content. Starring: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman. Director: Brett Haley. Running time: 96 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14.