Imaginary Heroes

Dan Harris, the 24-year-old screenwriter whose most substantial credit to date is Bryan Singer's X2 (2003), clearly hoped to expand beyond the superhero-adaptation niche in his directing debut. But it's an object lesson in the pitfalls of tackling thorny issues like suburban ennui and midlife angst when you're still in thrall to costumed heroics. The upper-middle-class...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Dan Harris, the 24-year-old screenwriter whose most substantial credit to date is Bryan Singer's X2 (2003), clearly hoped to expand beyond the superhero-adaptation niche in his directing debut. But it's an object lesson in the pitfalls of tackling thorny issues like suburban ennui and midlife angst when you're still in thrall to costumed heroics. The upper-middle-class Travis family is shattered when eldest son Matt (Kip Pardue), an up-and-coming competitive swimmer, kills himself without warning. But they're too uptight, guilt-ridden and image-conscious to talk to each other, so desperate housewife Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) guzzles wine, gets arrested for trying to buy marijuana and puffs endlessly on legal smokes while ignoring the ugly cough that fairly wheezes "lung cancer." Her husband, Ben (Jeff Daniels), whose Olympic aspirations for Matt were the bright spot in his otherwise dreary existence, stops shaving and spirals into a quietly devastating emotional meltdown. Daughter Penny (Michelle Williams) retreats into campus life, coming home as seldom as possible, and sensitive younger brother Tim (Emile Hirsch), a high school senior, insists he's fine. But his behavior — wallowing in drugs, breaking his sweet girlfriend's (Suzanne Santo) heart, raising hell with his best friend, Kyle (Ryan Donowho), and scrawling angrily in a battered notebook — suggests otherwise. Lots of things happen: Sandy flirts with a suicidal supermarket checkout clerk (Jay Paulson) who later takes up with Penny. Tim and Kyle are forced to do community service at a nursing home and share a passionate New Year's Eve kiss that freaks them both out in the harsh light of day. Sandy's longstanding feud with next-door neighbor Marge (Deirdre O'Connell) takes a surprising turn. But most of the incidents function as self-contained set pieces — Sandy's arrest, for example, has no consequences in an insular suburban enclave where everyone knows everyone else's business. The first-rate cast is lost at sea, doing good work in disconnected scenes whose tone vacillates unpredictably from wrenching to smart-alecky. Harris evidently aspired to the cathartic intensity of Greek tragedy. But his derivative pastiche feels like the Cliff's Notes precis version of WASP-misery cliches, heavily influenced by ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) by way of THE ICE STORM (1997) and complete with a few too many dark secrets battering the veneer of normality that holds back the bitter waves of despair.

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