Sigourney Weaver as Sandy Travis
Emile Hirsch as Tim Travis
Jeff Daniels as Ben Travis
Michelle Williams as Penny Travis
Kip Pardue as Matt Travis
Deirdre O’Connell as Marge Dwyer
Ryan Donowho as Kyle Dwyer
Suzanne Santo as Steph Connors
Jay Paulson as Vern
Luke Robertson as Jack Johnson
Lee Wilkof as Mitchell Goldstein
Terry Beaver as Dr. Monte
Sara Tanaka as Shelly Chan
Ned Benson as Undercover Hippie
Larry Fessenden as Store Clerk
Despite the decent cast, there’s little life in this poor man’s American Beauty full of so many unlikable character and unlikely situations that you just don’t care about any of them.
The suicide of their elder son Matt sends the Travis family’s life into turmoil as they try to cope with his death. Matt’s younger brother Tim (Emile Hirsch) has the hardest time dealing with it as he watches his parents marriage fall apart, his father (Jeff Daniels) turning to alcohol and his mother (Sigourney Weaver) trying other controlled substances.
Imaginary Heroes writer/director Dan Harris is better known as Bryan Singer’s collaborator who co-wrote X2: X-Men United and the upcoming Superman Returns, so it may be surprising that his first screenplay, which made the rounds for years before being produced, is a dark comedy/family drama in the vein of American Beauty.
Set in the generic suburbs of some indeterminate time period, we’re introduced to Matt Travis, a medal-winning swimmer and the pride of his swimming coach father has only one problem: He hates swimming enough to the point where is forced to kill himself. From there, the story follows a year in the life of his family, as they deal with the loss in their own different ways. Matt’s younger brother Tim is extremely close with their mother Sandra, but his father will never accept Tim as the replacement for his golden child. Tim rebels against his father by hanging out with the boy next door, a troublemaker named Kyle, whose mother is in a bitter feud with Tim’s mother for unknown reasons. Tim’s father starts hitting the bottle hard and not showing up for work, driving the wedge deeper into his marriage, so Sandra begins to seek her own form of escape by smoking marijuana. After a drunk driving accident, the doctors tell Sandra that Tim’s body is covered in bruises, which he blames on a school bully, who Sandra confronts during one of her pot-tinged episodes.
If that sounds a bit strange and rather dull, then you should try sitting through the movie since all of these disjointed subplots are delivered in a slow and plodding pace. Despite a number of gags that get a chuckle, Imaginary Heroes continues the recent tradition of mixing equal parts drama and humor to try to represent “real life.” Unfortunately, many of the unconventional situations don’t even seem remotely plausible as Sandra gets into more and more ridiculous situations, while trying to find pot, leading to a lot of bad storytelling choices that make little sense. Things only get worse when Tim and the “boy next door” get into a bit of a drunken dalliance, a completely unnecessary tangent. After two hours, it starts to seem like Harris has far too many ideas, throwing whatever he can against the wall to see what sticks. A more experienced director would have trimmed Harris’ script considerably to help with the flow and pacing.
Emile Hirsch is one of those promising young actors that you know is destined for big things. His early movie, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys with Kieran Culkin and Jena Malone, might someday be looked at as a Breakfast Club for the 21st Century by the amount of young talent introduced in it. Hirsch has certainly been in better outings than this, but here he takes on the same snarky demeanor as Culkin took on in Igby Goes Down, though he doesn’t pull it off nearly as well. Likewise, Weaver seems to be phoning it for most of the movie. Harris’ script itself isn’t that bad but the way the dialogue is performed makes it seem like these usually talented actors are just reading lines, further killing any realism to the story. No one talks like Weaver and Hirsh do in real life, and the chemistry between the two seems particularly forced.
Jeff Daniels is the only actor who is really able to pull something out of his rather one-dimensional character as the story progresses. Though he spends most of the film rather sullen and isolated from the rest of the family, when he finally faces the family problems head on, it leads to some powerful and emotional sequences. As far as the rest of the cast, Michelle Williams’ deadpan delivery fits right in, though she offers little to the story. The biggest surprise is Jay Paulson as a recurring character who keeps popping up out of the blue and who unintentionally forms the glue that brings the family together. His interactions with Tim, his mother and his sister does verge on the creepy though.
Imaginary Heroes‘ biggest problem is that you’re never given any reason to care for any of these characters. Sure, it’s sad that they’re son felt so pressured by his success as a swimmer that he offed himself, but you can’t help but scratch your head as you watch these people go through their mourning phase, as you wonder why they’re acting this way. It’s only in the film’s last ten minutes where Harris finally pulls back the curtain and allows the viewer to know that there is a lot more going on under the surface of these characters than we realize.
Without ruining this key plot twist, it is such an important part of making these characters and story work that it would have been much more effective to reveal earlier in the film. Few people will have the patience to sit through such a slow and dull movie only to learn how they’ve been cheated of really getting to know the characters simply because Harris chose to keep this important plot point a secret. Maybe that’s because by the time the movie actually gets to something interesting and worth exploring further it ends.
The Bottom Line:
Harris’ first effort as writer and director seems like a first effort. It’s a weak and somewhat amateurish attempt at a dark family comedy that some may enjoy, but most will find that rewatching American Beauty or any season of “Six Feet Under” is far more satisfying.
Imaginary Heroes opens in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and today; elsewhere later.