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'Imaginary Heroes': Eccentric in the Suburbs

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page C05

The screenwriter Dan Harris, best known for penning the sequel to "X-Men," makes an ambitious, uneven directorial debut with "Imaginary Heroes."

This laconic portrait of suburban anomie will inevitably be compared to such classics of the genre as "Ordinary People" and "The Ice Storm." But with its whiplash changes in tone from serious drama to mordant irony, it's closer in kin to such movies as "American Beauty" and last year's "Garden State."

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The chief difference between this largely derivative enterprise and its antecedents is directorial control or, more pointedly, lack thereof. Whereas the movies that clearly influenced Harris exhibited a superb sense of era, place and darkly comic timing, he continually falls short of his predecessors in this often painfully self-conscious exercise. The result is a strange little film that, even anchored by an amusingly spiky performance from Sigourney Weaver, never manages to achieve the balance between authenticity and eccentricity that Harris so strenuously reaches for.

Weaver plays Sandy Travis, a middle-aged mother of three living in a nameless bourgeois redoubt. As "Imaginary Heroes" opens, the Travis family is rocked by the death of favorite son Matt, a star swimmer whose talent in the pool is equaled only by his contempt for the sport.

Matt's death hits each family member in different ways. Sandy's husband, Ben (Jeff Daniels), insists on setting Matt's place at the dinner table every night; older sister Penny (Michelle Williams) pursues even greater degrees of alienation by staying away at college for long stretches; and Matt's little brother Tim (Emile Hirsch) tries to ignore the whole affair. Even in their individual bubbles of grief, the Travises share one survival strategy: Each tries to numb himself or herself with an array of mind-altering substances, from alcohol to marijuana to pills of sundry shapes, sizes and effects.

Although "Imaginary Heroes" is ostensibly about how one family is torn apart by a pivotal event, it's really a portrayal of Tim's extraordinary relationship with his mother, a difficult, direct woman as capable of breathtaking cruelty as she is of rare insight and compassion. Sandy, the audience discovers, is in the midst of a long-lasting feud with her next-door neighbor, the mother of Tim's rakish best friend Kyle (Ryan Donowho); she chats casually with Tim about masturbation; doesn't blink an eye when he's in a drunk-driving accident; and proves herself to be his fiercest advocate when he reveals wounds far deeper than his quiet veneer suggests. She's a survivor, an executive wife with the heart of a street fighter, a middle-aged, still-sexy avenging angel. She's a gorgeous, unholy mess.

Sandy is an unforgettable character, and that's most certainly because of Weaver's edgily funny performance; the rest of "Imaginary Heroes," however, is mired in so many contrivances and dramatic reveals that viewers may well begin to suffer plot-twist exhaustion. Harris drops bomb after bomb in the film, all the while cramming absurdly exaggerated tableaus of suburban oddity into every available nook and cranny. (It's a measure of how overstuffed "Imaginary Heroes" is that, in a gratuitous holiday party scene, he inexplicably enlists the drag duo Kiki and Herb to sing a campy Christmas song.)

Like many first-time directors, Harris has trouble editing himself, the result being that "Imaginary Heroes" feels like a dozen movies in one, none of them fully realized. Harris may want to be the umpteenth filmmaker to remind us that the 'burbs are strange, but making them this hectically weird seems closer to a neophyte's wishful thinking.

Imaginary Heroes (112 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place) is rated R for scenes of substance abuse, sexual content, profanity and some violence.

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