Bernie LaPlante (Hoffman) is the scum of the earth; a lowlife minor criminal and lifelong cynic who only looks out for himself first and foremost. However, by chance, Bernie happens upon the site of a plane crash and, upon an appeal to what remains of his better nature by a young survivor looking for his father, ends up rescuing the passengers from the wreck, including star TV reporter Gail Gayley (Davis), losing a shoe in the process and discarding the other.
Upon learning of the anonymous hero who selflessly risked his life to save others, the media leaps on the story and issues an appeal for the hero — complete with reward. Upon learning of the reward, Bernie decides to come forward, only to face several problems; he's in jail, absolutely no one believes he's capable of being a hero, and the 'hero' has already come forward — John Bubber (Garcia), a homeless veteran who not only appears to be the perfect hero, but has the only proof of who was there in the form of Bernie's discarded shoe...
Accidental Hero provides examples of:
- Accidental Hero: Bernie Laplante. Heck it is even the name of the movie.
- All-Loving Hero: Bubber may not have saved the airplane passengers, but he is nevertheless this. His service in Vietnam was marked by him saving his entire unit. When he got a million dollars, rather than forget about all the remaining homeless people, he uses his newfound fame to help them. His compassion shines through when he visits the children's hospital. And of course, he risks his life saving Bernie on the ledge.
- An Aesop: Heroes come in many forms. Some inspire others to be better through their reputation as heroes, while others just do the saving when saving needs to be done, but aren't very inspiring in themselves. Either way, anyone can be a hero.
- And the Adventure Continues
- Becoming the Mask: In the climax, Bernie points out to Bubber that he has become a hero that saved others' lives (including helping a child come out of a coma).
- Blackmail: First subverted, then played straight. Gail thinks that Bernie is blackmailing Bubber, who is only trying to prove that he is the real hero. However when he meets Bubber, Bernie really blackmails him.
- Butt-Monkey: Everything seems to go wrong for Bernie, who loses a shoe, gives the other one to John Bubber who becomes a celebrity once the other shoe is found at the plane wreck, loses his job, gets arrested for a credit card scam, is accused of blackmailing Bubber by Gale, who threatens to have Bernie prosecuted if anything happens to Bubber.
- Cassandra Did It: Inverted. Bernie really saved all the passengers. However nobody believes that he did it.
- Cassandra Truth: See above example.
- Clear My Name: Inverted. Bernie is trying to prove that he is the real hero.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Bernie drops a number of these throughout the film.
- Driven to Suicide: Bubber tries to jump from a building, because he can't stand lying to everyone.
- Exported Character: Dustin Hoffman seems to have resurrected his performance as Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy when playing Bernie. The personalities are so similar that you're left thinking that Bernard is what Ratso would have become had he survived and been slightly more successful in life and as a petty crook.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: John Bubber. Subverted that Bubber really is a hero- even Bernie tells him that he would have saved passengers if he was there. It just that he didn't really do it.
- Here We Go Again!: The movie ends with Bernie at the zoo with his son, when he hears that someone's child fell into the lion's pit. As before, Bernie tries to find someone else to save the kid, but nobody steps forth. This time, he asks his son to watch his shoes.
- Irony: Bernie is an utter sleaze who ends up suffering greatly for his single moment of decency while Bubber is an almost saintly person who has suffered all his life until he does a single unethical action which causes his life to massively improve.
- Jerkass: Bernie most of the time.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bernie again. In fact, his total, uncaring cynicism means that he's usually the only person in a crisis who isn't panicking, which allows him to save the day.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Bernie. Nobody except his son and Gail in the climax believes that Bernie could really be the hero and risk his life to save others.
- My Greatest Failure: The reason Bernie doesn't stick around to take credit for rescuing the passengers? He feels guilty because he couldn't rescue the father of the kid who asked for his help. Subverted when it comes to light that the father ended up escaping on his own without help.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: After rescuing all those passengers, life seems to kick Bernie in the gut: by rescuing the passengers, he missed out on taking his son to the movies, he lost his job for being late to work, and he was thrown in jail.
- Only in It for the Money: Bernie only wants to prove that he saved the passengers because of the million dollar reward.
- The Precarious Ledge: John, after taking credit for a rescue he didn't actually do, goes out on a ledge and is contemplating suicide. Bernie, the actual rescuer, goes out to talk him down. They both agree that John is more the "hero-type" than Bernie is, so Bernie lets John take the credit both for the original rescue and for talking him off the ledge.
- Rags to Riches: Bubber goes overnight from homeless to wealthy idol of millions. He enjoys it at first... before the guilt of his imposture starts eating at him.
- Rousseau Was Right: In the end both Bernie and Bubber become real heroes.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: After suffering several indignities, Bernie does get thrown a few bones: his bartender friend gives him a free beer, and his lawyer payed his bail free of charge. And at the end of the movie, he gets a day to hang out with his son.