Sony // 2004 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // August 16th, 2005
Dan Harris's Imaginary Heroes is a good film, despite the fact that it very little originality to offer. It's a handsomely photographed, well acted, sometimes well-written family drama that owes more than a little bit to predecessors Ordinary People and American Beauty (not to mention shades of The Ice Storm and even Good Will Hunting). That it doesn't work as well as those films is probably a result of that imitation; the whole movie has a real feeling of "been there, seen that" that even its strengths aren't entirely able to overcome.
The film tells the story of the Travis family: dad Ben (Jeff Daniels, Something Wild, Pleasantville), mom Sandy (Sigourney Weaver, Dave), son Tim (Emile Hirsch, The Girl Next Door) and sister Penny (Michelle Williams, Dick, The Station Agent), who are all recovering following the suicide of older brother Matt (Kip Pardue, This Girl's Life). Each family member has a found a unique way to cope in reaction to the recent death, though each coping method involves closing off and pulling further away from the rest of the family. Tim finds new ways to get into trouble as he tries to find his place in the family; Sandy begins to self-medicate; Ben shuts down completely, sleeping in his car and spending his days sitting vacantly on a bench. Needless to say, old secrets will be revealed and wounds will resurface before the Travis family is able to come together and move forward with their lives -- though not before a few unexpected twists (a word of caution: it's never a good sign when a character coughs in a movie).
Film after film has already taught us that the suburbs are dens of dysfunction, and that underneath every picture-perfect family surface lies distance and pain, so very little of what Harris has to offer is revelatory. Not every movie needs to be -- that's too high a standard to be held to -- but Imaginary Heroes suffers by traveling too-familiar ground; it's been too heavily informed by other movies. And, yet, there are wonderful scenes here and there that make the movie worth seeing: Tim's description of his brother's feelings towards swimming, or the discovery of Matt's body, or Sandy's final confrontation with her next door neighbor, or her response to her husband's declaration of love all come to mind. Harris is young, but a good writer (he made this film at 25, having already written the great X2 for Bryan Singer, among others); I have little doubt he'll only improve as he gets older and gains experience outside of a movie theater. He also shows real chops as a director, demonstrating a real feel for tone and a pretty extraordinary visual sense. His is a well-made movie of individual moments that don't quite add up, though not for lack of trying.
The real star of the film -- even more so than Harris -- is Sigourney Weaver (it would appear the studio agrees, too, as she is the only actor to appear on the disc's cover art and in her very own commentary track), who gives one of the best performances of her already impressive career. More than once, she's asked to play virtually impossible scenes; moments like Sandy trying to buy marijuana at a head shop, or busting into a trailer and dressing down the local bully, could have been disastrous in the hands of another actor. That she's able to infuse these moments with such genuine spunk and humor is some kind of small miracle; Weaver might be one of the few actors out there that can turn a role written so overtly quirky into something so honest and human. In a film bogged down by too many artificial constructs, that humanity goes a long, long way.
Sony releases Imaginary Heroes in a fairly supplement-packed single-disc DVD. The movie's gorgeously moody cinematography (by DP Tim Orr, who's also responsible for all of David Gordon Green's films) is well represented here; the anamorphic 2.35:1 image is effectively dark, with colors that are rich and deep. The 5.1 audio track is excellent as well, clearly keeping the dialogue front and center and allowing the powerful score (with a theme by John Ottman, also of X2) to fill in the rest. There's a good amount of extras on hand, beginning with a pair of commentary tracks: the first by star Sigourney Weaver, the second by Harris and Emile Hirsch. Weaver's track is pretty much solely descriptive -- she talks about what's happening on screen and how her character is feeling, and she runs out of steam early on. The Harris/Hirsch track is slightly better, with Harris (who sounds alarmingly like Paul Thomas Anderson on his commentary) guiding most of the conversation and Hirsch chiming in with would-be profound statements; their conversation on the importance of stars (celestial ones, not movie stars) borders on embarrassing.
Rounding out the special features is a number of deleted scenes that explore minor subplots, all apparently cut for time (they can be played with commentary by Harris, who explains just that). There's a short "making-of" featurette in which everyone gushes about everyone else and makes jokes about Harris -- who really does look like he's twelve years old -- and his youthful appearance. A photo gallery, a soundtrack promo, and some bonus trailers are also included.
Harris is obviously talented, and his Imaginary Heroes announces him as a director to watch for in the future. It's far from being a home run, but it's at least solid double; the actors are so good and some scenes are strong enough to warrant a recommendation -- albeit a slightly reluctant one. I look forward to Dan Harris's next film, and hope that he's found something more original to say.
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Sigourney Weaver
* Commentary with Dan Harris and Emile Hirsch
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
* Bonus Trailers
* Soundtrack Promo
* Official Site