Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in The Hero (The Orchard)

American movies always have had a place for the beautiful loser. Now make way for the beautiful geezer, a washed-up guy with a semi-glamorous past who hits rock bottom and faces his flaws and struggling for redemption, like in Crazy Heart and The Wrestler.

The Hero gives us another eroded back number to clasp to our bosoms, with veteran character actor Sam Elliott as B-movie Western star Lee, who has come way down from his days of cult glory. Lee’s bum health and the love of a good (and much younger) woman kick-start his long-awaited reckoning with the past. The material is familiar, but be ready for tears along the way. The movie’s likeability and moments of genuine feeling help neutralize what can feel like laziness and false modesty.

Lee Hayden lives in Los Angeles, underemployed as a voice-over actor listlessly shilling barbecue sauce. Suppressed guilt shows through Lee’s laid-back exterior; his ex-wife deals with him brusquely, and his fed-up daughter resists half-hearted attempts to repair their damaged relationship. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis sends the already isolated, borderline-addicted Lee even deeper into weed and booze. At the home of his morose pot dealer (Nick Offerman), Lee meets stand-up comedian Charlotte (scary-hot Laura Prepon, whose husky, buzzing voice nicely offsets Elliott’s gravel-meets-molasses baritone). The two strike up a wary flirtation.

Charlotte accompanies Lee on a drugs-fueled date at a banquet in his honor. The actor’s whips up applause for a random guest and bestows his award upon the stranger. The gesture is recorded and goes viral (a snotty teenager within me rolled her eyes and mouthed “As if” at the idea of the condescending stunt’s attracting millions of clicks). All of a sudden Lee is in demand, trending on Twitter, and poised for a comeback. But first he needs to reach out to the people he let down, come clean about his illness, and decide how to handle the sexy new woman in his life. It’s a tall order for a man going on 72.

In Grandma (2015), Elliott confronted Lily Tomlin as a former lover, betrayed long ago and ready to exact a delicious payback. Barbed dialogue welded seduction to revenge, cruelty to tenderness, and showcased Elliott as a canny, powerful actor. The Hero needs more of this alert Sam Elliott. Playing meta games with Elliott’s dude persona, the movie dwells too long on Lee getting stoned, acting cool, and sizing up others with a knowing squint. Oh, and replaying his old Westerns in his head. Lee’s travails can seem tired and low energy, and luscious Charlotte’s falling into his lap unearned.

On the other hand, The Hero has universal and relatable things to say about disappointment, the desire to make amends, and the sense that time is running out. Filmed at a discreet distance, a scene where Lee talks to his ex-wife, and we can’t hear, is affecting. Interchanges with his angry daughter ring with real hurt. For all his passivity, you find yourself rooting for Lee when he finally wakes up and becomes the good guy he should have been all along. In the same way, The Hero may try your patience, but you’ll find yourself on its side by the—cautiously happy—end.

Directed by Brett Haley
Written by Haley and Marc Basch
Released by the Orchard
USA. 93 min. Rated R
With Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, and Katharine Ross