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Elliott's strong performance strains to keep 'The Hero' afloat

“THE HERO” — 2½ stars — Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman; R (drug use, language and some sexual content); Broadway

“The Hero” is a showcase for Sam Elliott, but if your multiplex were “The Price is Right,” it would be the showcase you pass up, because the second one always has better stuff.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a veteran actor at the tail end of his career. He knows it’s the end of his career because new roles are rare and he’s been nominated for a lifetime achievement award. So he splits his time between recording halfhearted voiceovers for barbecue sauce radio spots and smoking joints with his best friend, a part-time actor/part-time drug dealer named Jeremy (Nick Offerman).

As you might expect, Lee is estranged from his family. He’s comfortable enough with his ex-wife, Valarie (Katharine Ross), to drop in and see her at her art studio, but his daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), is clearly uncomfortable when he stops to see her at her regular tennis court. Normally Lee would keep his distance from both parties, but after a routine visit with his doctor he feels obligated: Lee has pancreatic cancer, with a slim chance of survival.

It’s a time of reckoning for Lee, and the substance of his career comes into even more relief against his physical mortality. Yet even when he stops by to see them, he can’t bring himself to break the news to Valarie or Lucy. Instead, he retreats further into his recreational drug habit and winds up meeting Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a raven-haired siren his daughter’s age who shares an interest in Jeremy’s product. From here, “The Hero” follows Lee as his unexpected relationship with Charlotte allows him to postpone facing the inevitable.

It’s the kind of storyline that needs a strong figure at its center, and Elliott holds the line effectively. The role isn’t exactly a stretch — Lee’s lifetime achievement award is for his work in Western roles, and he’s famous for his deep, growling voice — and it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone else as Lee.

In between the real-life scenes, Lee has frequent dream sequences that place him in his most famous part — the title character of a 40-year-old film called “The Hero.” When Lee attends his awards gala, the attendees watch a scene from the film, but rather than having viewers watch an artificial young CGI version of Elliott, director Brett Haley keeps the camera square on Lee sitting uncomfortably in the audience, wearing an empty stare that tells you everything you need to know about how he’s feeling.

Then again, his stare could also be the result of the drugs he took before the ceremony. There is an awful lot of drug use in “The Hero.”

That dark stare is one of the few things that holds “The Hero” together. Lee’s relationship with his daughter is thinly developed, as is his dynamic with Valarie. The relationship with Charlotte is curious — then gets stranger when he learns she’s a standup comic who is using her May-December relationship as stage material. All the threads show potential, and “The Hero” is watchable, but outside of Elliott, there isn’t much to put Haley’s film at the top of your must-see list.

“The Hero” is rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content; running time: 93 minutes.