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Hero heads for the high ground of the dark, sorrowful comedies of Preston Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero) and Frank Capra (Meet John Doe). Credit the film then for having a goal, even though it loses sight of it with disturbing rapidity. Bernie LaPlante, whom Dustin Hoffman portrays as a curious mix of Ratso Rizzo and Rain Man, is a grizzled, low-rent Chicago thief and fence whose wife (the ever-delicious Joan Cusack) has divorced him in disgust. Their son (James Madio) is also about to give up on the con man. Bernie even steals from his sympathetic attorney, played by newcomer Susie Cusack (Joan’s sister) with what appears to be a family talent for wizardly comic timing.

But one rainy night on a highway, Bernie witnesses a plane crash. Grumbling to himself about getting wet (“I got hundred-dollar shoes here”), he aids in the rescue when a young boy who’s escaped from the plane begs Bernie to go in and save his father. In the confusion, no one remembers what the savior looked like. Bernie, a crook who is wary of cameras, has hitched a ride with a homeless junk-man named Bubber (sweetly and magnetically underplayed by Andy Garcia).

One of the dazed passengers Bernie dragged out of the wreckage is TV journalist Gale Gayley (gorgeously sassy Geena Davis in an underwritten role). Gale convinces her boss — Chevy Chase in an unbilled cameo — to offer a huge reward if the mystery man will come forward and give the network an exclusive. It’s an exploitable story, especially when Bubber claims he’s the hero and becomes a telegenic media darling. Though Bernie tries to convince everyone from his ex-wife to his bartender (Tom Arnold) that Bubber’s an impostor and that he’s the real hero, he just doesn’t look the part.

With that no-bull cast, plus a script by the gifted David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven) and direction by Britain’s great Stephen Frears (The Grifters), it’s a letdown that the anticipated wicked satire never comes. The result of this rare collaboration is a fitfully entertaining but softheaded muddle. The media lampoon pales next to Bob Roberts, and the script never delivers on what began as a cutting deconstruction of tabloid-era heroics.

Gayley gets weepy in the face of what she takes as genuine goodness; Bubber starts acting like a Christ figure; and Bernie really can’t resist helping those in need — he just doesn’t want the publicity Bubber craves. Hoffman is quite touching in a telephone scene in which Bernie breaks down to his wife about blowing their marriage. But the scene’s a crock. It’s as if the filmmakers decided a bitterly sardonic fable wouldn’t play without a coating of Disney goo. The climactic confrontation between Bernie and the suicidal Bubber — he fears being exposed — takes place on the tenth-story ledge of the Drake Hotel. But Hero takes no imaginative leaps, preferring instead the comfort of sentiment and sitcom predictability.

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