Imaginary Heroes (2004) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for drug use, sexual content, language, and some violence
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Kip Pardue, Dierdre O'Connell, Ryan Donowho, Suzanna Santo, Jay Paulson, Luke Roberston
Director: Dan Harris
Screenplay: Dan Harris
Review published February 12, 2005

Imaginary Heroes is a vastly uneven comic drama that tries too hard to be a pithy, erudite story about the hard knocks of life, but ends up being a mostly artificial and overly manipulative mess.  This is one where you watch for the acting talents of the stars and hope you'll be surprised, but leaving disappointed that all of their talent weren't put to use in a film that had been put together with more credibility.  It's the first big directorial gig for writer-director Dan Harris, who has spent the last couple of years penning the screenplays for some other types of "imaginary heroes" with X2, and the upcoming Superman Returns.  In this case, it seems that Harris is trying to craft a film that even proven directors would find daunting, with issues like suicide, dysfunctional families, first-time sex, adultery, potentially fatal diseases, homosexual tendencies, abuse, school pressures, and drugs.  It's just too much to take, throwing one wave after another of serious issues, never quite dealing with any to the extent that it should, and once the "Oh, come on!" factor rears its ugly head, which happens quite early in the film, there's just no way to recover.

Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door, The Emperor's Club) plays 17-year-old Tim Harris, who happens to walk in the bedroom of his older brother (Kip Pardue, The Rules of Attraction) shortly after he had commits suicide.  The shockwave of this event makes an already dysfunctional family fall apart at the seams, as the father (Jeff Daniels, The Hours) withdraws into stony silence, the mother (Sigourney Weaver, The Village) devolves into a bout of hedonistic pleasures, and Tim can't put himself together no matter what he does. 

You get the sense that Imaginary Heroes is a personal film for Dan Harris, almost an exercise in putting thoughts down on paper so as to get them out of his system, and make something constructive in the process.  The problem with this personal approach is that it isn't about one person's reality, but it is a family who seems to have to deal with the all of the issues a small community might face all on their own.  The effect is like watching one of those moralistic sitcoms, a la "Different Strokes", where a new calamity happens to the same family every week, to the point where you wonder just how unlucky can one household be?  Harris tosses in everything but the kitchen sink breaking, piling on one human failure after another, trying to wrap up all this calamity into a meaningful whole, without ever really laying down a truthful foundation for real family drama.

In the midst of all this unhappiness, there is apparently a need for vast amounts of comic relief, to the point where I can only classify this as a seriocomic endeavor.  Some comic relief is always a good play in the middle of tragedies, if you don't want your audience to get too depressed, but like the rest of the themes, the comedy is also performed with overkill.  You can see the wheels turning and gears grinding in trying to make this batch of misery entertaining and palatable, creating phony scenarios and conversations that only occur in fantasyland movies like this one. 

If there is one good aspect to Imaginary Heroes, it comes from the performances of the actors, with a particularly strong role for Sigourney Weaver.  Emile Hirsch continues to roll along playing another troubled youth dealing with growing pains, and why not, since he does it so well?  Sadly, their performances still produce little returns, with characters that are so contrived and manipulated by Harris to achieve an end that the only thing that would make them seem less real would be if they were replaced by marionettes. 

For every good moment, there are about two or three bad ones, making Imaginary Heroes a tiresome experience that never comes close to approaching the profundity that Harris has so clearly aimed for.  If Harris ever chooses to make a family drama again, instead of sci-fi action vehicles, my advice is to try to make his heroes seem real, instead of the imaginary ones found in this overcooked misfire.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo