The opening scene of "The Hero" offers a welcome reminder of what many a moviegoer already knows: namely, that Sam Elliott's voice is one of the wonders of the cinematic world. The beneficiary of that voice this time around is a guy named Lee Hayden, a fading 71-year-old actor whom we first see and hear in a studio, recording voiceover for a barbecue-sauce commercial. Even in this context, it's entrancing to listen to Elliott's deep, sonorous drawl, whether it's in service of a condiment slogan or a big-screen vehicle as predictably and creakily sentimental as this one.
Written and directed by Brett Haley, "The Hero" is both a follow-up and a companion piece to his charming 2015 dramedy, "I'll See You in My Dreams," which starred Blythe Danner as a retired widow embarking on a life of renewed romantic possibility. Elliott popped up in that film as one of a few possible Mr. Rights, stealing her heart and the movie through the sheer force of his courtly, mustachioed charm. The performance seemed to herald a post-"Tombstone," post-"Big Lebowski" career resurgence for the actor, one that his recent roles in the independent film "Grandma" and the Netflix shows "The Ranch" and "Grace and Frankie" have beautifully borne out.
These recent successes aside, there's little irony in the fact that in "The Hero," Elliott is playing a has-been celebrity. (Playing a has-been celebrity is often a sign you've arrived.) The jewel of Lee's résumé, which echoes and departs from Elliott's in a number of ways, is an iconic cowboy performance in a western (also titled "The Hero"). The goodwill engendered by that star turn has done little for his career lately, apart from earning him a lifetime achievement award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild, which provides the movie with both its comic high point and its elegiac centerpiece.
Elsewhere, Lee is still trying to repair his relationships with his ex-wife (played by Katharine Ross, Elliott's wife of more than three decades) and his daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), who remains sullen after years of neglect. Even worse, Lee has just learned that he has pancreatic cancer and doesn't know whether he should bother seeking treatment, a question that prompts much silent contemplation of the shores of Malibu.
But just as death seems to be looming, a possible reason to live emerges when Lee goes to commiserate and smoke weed with an old friend and former costar, Jeremy (Nick Offerman, with whom Elliott appeared on "Parks and Recreation"). Into the room comes Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a dark-haired woman in her 30s who enjoys standup comedy, recreational drug use, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and older dudes. Her wry initial flirtation with Lee makes it instantly clear they'll be seeing each other again.
With her husky voice, Amazonian build and penetrating stare, Prepon makes a commanding camera subject — and in that respect, she's well matched by Elliott, whose eyes, peering out from that magnificently weathered face, have lost none of their sly and suggestive twinkle. It's no great stretch to believe that, despite their three-decade age gap, these two uniquely magnetic individuals might develop a strong mutual attraction.
But there's a difference between plausibility and inevitability, and not even Charlotte and Lee's unforced chemistry can dispel the nagging sense that "The Hero" is cleaving to a predictable and all-too-familiar fantasy of male redemption. If you've seen "Crazy Heart," the richer, thornier 2009 drama starring Jeff Bridges as an aging country musician, you'll recognize the template immediately, in which the pleasures of a May-December romance serve as a catch-all remedy for life's bitter regrets and future uncertainties.
There are of course all sorts of ways to complicate and enliven a narrative formula, and in this case, a bit more time spent getting to know Charlotte for Charlotte's sake would not have been misplaced. (The same might be said of the other two women in Lee's life, who, despite the best efforts of Ross and especially Ritter, come across as clichés of long-suffering femininity.) As it is, very little about Charlotte, from her love of quoting Millay to her comedic aspirations, seems to exist for any reason other than to provide a prism on the man she finds herself falling for.
More clumsy than knowing in its portrait of an industry that Lee no longer knows how to navigate (the news that one of his latest appearances has "gone viral!" provokes the movie's biggest eye-roll), Haley's movie is ultimately a feature-length valentine to his star, and as such it's something of a mixed blessing. Elliott's droll delivery and laconic charm are very much in evidence; he probably couldn't turn them off if he tried, though "The Hero" leaves you wondering if maybe he should have. A role that fits an actor like a glove is one thing; a project that has been this painstakingly tailored to flatter him is quite another.
MPAA rating: R, for drug use, language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles