Based on the novel by Sheila Ballentine, IMAGINARY CRIMES is a study in missed opportunities. In the lead, Harvey Keitel--just off a roll that included BAD LIEUTENANT, THE PIANO, RESERVOIR DOGS, and PULP FICTION--seems ideally cast as the dissembling blowhard. But because the script fails to sufficiently develop or explain his character, the tragedy is...read more
Based on the novel by Sheila Ballentine, IMAGINARY CRIMES is a study in missed opportunities. In the lead, Harvey Keitel--just off a roll that included BAD LIEUTENANT, THE PIANO, RESERVOIR DOGS, and PULP FICTION--seems ideally cast as the dissembling blowhard. But because the script
fails to sufficiently develop or explain his character, the tragedy is less that of a quicksilver dreamer ill-suited to fatherhood than a superb actor unable to nail the role of a lifetime.
Through the eyes of narrator Sonya Weiler (Fairuza Balk), we learn her troubled family history. Her father, smooth-talking Ray Weiler (Harvey Keitel), dabbles in get-rich-quick inventions (like metal detectors that don't detect) that provide a catch-as-catch-can existence for his children; only
his hopes keep him a step ahead of the creditors. Yet he manages to charm his way into the posh Edgemont high school attended by his late wife--who died from cancer--and secure a place there for his daughter. Flashbacks reveal Ray's complex relationship with wife Valery (Kelly Lynch), whose only
respite from Ray's pie-in-the-sky deals was a weekly visit to the movies.
Sonya, who's forced into the role of surrogate mother to her younger sister Greta (Elisabeth Moss), increasingly resents her father's business practices as she nears graduation from high school. Desperate for the big score that has eluded him, Ray branches off into a mountain land development
scheme and swindles a furious Mr. Jarvis (Chris Penn) and the father of one of Sonya's classmates. Mortified when her dad is arrested for fraud, Sonya seethes with condemnation when he skips town for Reno after her favorite professor has posted bond for him. Sonya refuses to accompany Ray and
realize her mother's dream by graduating from Edgemont high school, even though she can't spare Greta from a temporary stay with social services. Surprisingly, Ray returns to attend his daughter's commencement exercises before surrendering to serve his fraud sentence. Sonya-as-narrator explains
that she assumed responsibility for Greta and that, years later, Ray froze to death in the wild country he'd once hoped to mine for profit.
Despite some fine performances and glorious production design, IMAGINARY CRIMES never holds the audience as it should. While it appears to have been designed as a showcase for Keitel, the film's most emotionally wrenching scenes are the flashbacks featuring the luminous Kelly Lynch, one of
Hollywood's underrated treasures, as his wife. With a few deft strokes, she shows how a well-bred woman might marry beneath herself and go to her grave loving a man who gave his word but never kept it.
IMAGINARY CRIMES makes a fatal miscalculation by only showing Ray from the perspective of his daughter. The trouble isn't that her biases color his character, so much as the fact that Ray never emerges as a living, breathing antagonist. He's just a dysfunctional bogeyman, a tapped-out salesman
whose tragedy is that he can't even sell his own family on his flim-flammery. This is Sonya's story, not his, but he seems such a one-dimensional villain that it's hard to fathom his grip on his daughter's imagination, or conceive what he contributed to her creative growth. Ray exists simply to
fail his daughter, and that her father remains a mystery to Sonya is small solace to the viewer, who wants to penetrate the character's shell.
Nevertheless, despite certain missteps--like filming the period after her mother's death during which Greta goes deaf in black-and-white--IMAGINARY CRIMES is sensitively directed and passionately acted. The sole flaw in the performances is Fairuza Balk's inexpressive voice-over narration. An
illuminating actress in her dramatic scenes, she has a dismayingly flat reading voice that undermines the emotional complexity of what she has to say. (Profanity, violence, adult situations.)
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