Imaginary Heroes

Review by Adam Blair

Written and directed by Dan Harris

Starring Emile Hirsch, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Deirdre O’Connell, Ryan Donowho, Kip Pardue

Rated R; 112 minutes

Simultaneously pretentious and soapily melodramatic, with just enough glimmers of quirky wit to highlight the tedious wasteland they’re drowning in, Imaginary Heroes is a mess. Among its other crimes, it strands excellent actors (Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch) in ridiculous parts, and makes usually competent ones (Jeff Daniels) look positively catatonic.

Imaginary Heroes examines a seriously dysfunctional family dealing, or rather not dealing, with a horrible tragedy — the suicide of a golden-boy older brother (Kip Pardue), and its impact on his parents (Weaver and Daniels) and surviving siblings (Hirsch and Michelle Williams), focusing mostly on 17-year-old Hirsch’s character Tim. The death reveals serious cracks in the family dynamic that any competent therapist — hell, that anyone within shouting distance — could have diagnosed long before the film begins, but they are revealed to the audience in agonizingly slow exposition.

And what a litany of woes! There’s enough bad behavior and long-buried secrets to fill a season and a half of “All My Children”: drunk driving, indiscriminate pill-popping, parents getting high on wacky tabacky, run-ins with the law, physical abuse, adultery and uncertain parentage, and — these people are shameless — a cancer scare. Oh, and let’s not forget quasi-incestuous, ecstasy-induced teen homosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut Ordinary People is the ur-text for this horror of a film, but where Redford’s attention to detail, careful visual compositions and respect for his actors gave depth to a somewhat simplistic story, first-time director Dan Harris sabotages his own overloaded screenplay by failing to find any consistent tone for the film.

I wonder whether any director could have gotten a better movie out of the screenplay as it stands. Perhaps miracle worker Ang Lee, who tackled some of the same themes (marital malaise, suburban vacuity and parents who are more childish than their teenage kids) in The Ice Storm, could have elevated these characters to a height where what happens to them is tragic, rather than just an unending series of catastrophes visited on them by a willful, plot-heavy script.

Or perhaps Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling) could have pushed it in the other direction, making the hoary revelations and frozen emotions a dark mirror of society’s sicknesses. That film would have been uncomfortable to watch, but at least you would get a sense that you’re meant to be uncomfortable. Either Harris doesn’t know whether these characters are caricatured figures of fun or recognizable human beings, or he doesn’t have the directorial skill to resolve their internal contradictions.

They are a disturbing bunch. Daniels, as the father whose passion for athletic victory probably pushed the older son, a star swimmer, to his death, is both a self-satisfied prick and a depressed, disassociated loser. I know that in real life those traits can be combined in one person, but Harris keeps setting up Daniels as a stock cardboard villain for Weaver and Hirsch’s characters to score points off of, not an actual suffering person. Daniels’ late-inning redemption is the most unearned of all the unearned redemptions needed to provide a quasi-happy ending.

Weaver’s character is equally disturbing, and the more the audience learns about her the less they like her. The film’s only dramatically complex through-line is generated by the fact that Weaver is such a charming, dynamic actress that she gains the audience’s sympathy nearly from the start; however, she is in truth as stupid, self-satisfied and selfish as all the other a-holes populating this film. Weaver’s intelligence as an actress is played against her character’s ignorance (does anybody not know that you can’t actually buy marijuana over the counter in a head shop?). This worked to comic effect in Galaxy Quest, where Weaver played a blonde, big-bosomed ninny as an affectionate parody of Gene Roddenberry’s wet dreams, but here it’s just confusing.

Weaver is also one of those mothers who congratulate themselves on what a fabulously close relationship they have with their sons, able to openly discuss masturbation and sex with Hirsch’s Tim. At least he has the good sense to be creeped out by this, a sign of sanity that’s eventually outweighed by the teen traumas visited on him by Harris. Only Michelle Williams escapes as a reasonably O.K., relatively sane character, but she’s really peripheral to the action. Lucky her.

The story behind this film is probably more interesting than the film itself. The material may be somewhat autobiographical: Tim is a creative type (he writes music) so he may be a stand-in for the author. If this is true — and I have no idea if it is, though that would follow the mold of many an indie pic — Harris has not gained enough distance to give his story shape or his characters depth.

How did Harris get to direct his own screenplay, you may ask? He is currently THE hot young screenwriter in Hollywood, and I do mean young. As his bio in the press materials states, he co-wrote X2: X-Men United at the age of 22 for director Bryan Singer, “an assignment offered to him after the director read the screenplay for Imaginary Heroes.” This proves that A) Harris is a lousy director who messed up his own screenplay; B) Bryan Singer and Sigourney Weaver were snookered by Harris’ pitch; C) You really can’t tell how a movie will come out by reading the screenplay; or D) All of the above.

Harris is working on, among other projects, the Superman feature film, as well as the remake of Logan’s Run and “multiple drafts” of Fantastic Four. Are we sensing a pattern yet? He may be adept at bringing a tinge of life and humor to larger-than-life, two-dimensional superheroes, but when it comes to fleshing out real people, it’s back to the comic book drawing board.

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