Imaginary Heroes

(2004) ** R
117 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Dan Harris. Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch, Jeff Daniels, Kip Pardue, Deidre O'Connell.

The screenplay for Imaginary Heroes purportedly got writer Dan Harris the gig to co-write X2 and the right, we now see, to direct Imaginary Heroes. The problem is that the screenplay is so overtly trying to get attention: it worked for Harris's career, but I'm guessing audiences will find it too precious by half.

Primarily, Imaginary Heroes grafts Ordinary People onto American Beauty, trying to shock viewers with the seedy emotional underbelly of suburbanites in trouble. But are there really any suburbs in America like this one, with its family's cute, tragicomic disintegration in the wake of a son's suicide? Dad Jeff Daniels starts living on a park bench, mom Sigourney Weaver scores pot and entertains an affair with a much-younger man, daughter Michelle Williams relishes her escape, and Emile Hirsch, as the dead young man's brother, awkwardly comes of age.

In isolated moments, Imaginary Heroes can prove affecting. Hirsch embodies a dissolute depressive with enough compelling crises for three teen dramas: living in the shadow of the late golden boy, troubleshooting conflicted feelings for his friend and neighbor (Ryan Donowho), and fielding the nagging question of how he'll spend the rest of his life. As his stand-up mom, Weaver makes memorable her character's rapport with her son, as well as a strident speech defining her protective maternal instinct.

Mostly, the cast labors to sell material that just never finds its groove. One late-picture "twist"—revealed in flashback—completely undermines the picture's already shaky claim to realism; another big reveal leads to the hasty and unconvincing emotional repair of a seriously damaged relationship. No matter how much it believes in its own overreaching cosmic significance (and the eternal truth that everybody hurts), Imaginary Heroes comes across as patently false.

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