If you feel like you've seen "Imaginary Heroes" before, that's because you have — except it was called "Ordinary People" or "The Ice Storm" or any of a number of movies that dwell in the world of suburban misery, emotionally distant parents, troubled siblings and deceptively homey-looking houses populated by poor communicators. Like the movies it imitates, "Imaginary Heroes" is enlivened by some good performances, but it's ultimately overfamiliar and slow, and its characters feel like they were dreamed up by a screenwriter — no one ever seems to breathe real air.
Writer/director Dan Harris seems to not realize that, at 25, he's got plenty of time to make more movies; rather, he pours an oceanful of plot into this one. As the story begins, the Travis family — mother Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), father Ben (Jeff Daniels), brother Tim (Emile Hirsch) and sister Penny (Michelle Williams) — is coping with the suicide of oldest son Matt (Kip Pardue), a champion swimmer who, we're told, "hated the attention ... and hated swimming."
Each Travis falls apart in a different way: Sandy smokes a lot of pot and turns bitter and sarcastic; Ben stops communicating with the family; Tim experiments with drugs and sexual identity; and Penny drops in now and again from college to say things like, "Is there such a thing as the human heart?"
There's also a domestic-violence subplot, and a long-held family secret that, once uncovered, creates more questions than it answers. And, mysteriously, there's a neighborhood Christmas party that includes a performance by the New-York based drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, which stops the movie dead. Their presence makes no sense at all. You can almost hear the audience's eyebrows raising. Are Kiki and Herb, perhaps, in the habit of popping in on suburban shindigs?
It's all fairly wearying, and some good actors get short shrift: Daniels, in particular, is trapped in a character who's neglected for much of the running time. It's established that he was a pushy parent, obsessed with Matt's accomplishments — and then the screenplay abandons him to skulk around the margins of the film, bitter and alone.
Hirsch, beetle-browed and morose, finds a few moments of vulnerability, but it's really Weaver's film. Her Sandy is at times startlingly vivid; a mother lion rising out of torpor to defend her cub. In one nicely played scene, Sandy and Tim rock on a porch swing, two misfits together. She loves him but doesn't need to say so; it's an almost offhand performance, breezily underplayed.
Harris is young and surely has better movies in his future; in the meantime, "Imaginary Heroes" is strictly for Weaver fans, and for those who feel that the movies haven't yet exhausted the topic of suburban angst. "American Beauty," a few years back, brought a fresh comedic twist to the genre; "Heroes" feels like a sleepy throwback, a story that's already been told.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
"Imaginary Heroes," with Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Kip Pardue.
Written and directed by Dan Harris. 117 minutes. Rated R for substance abuse, sexual content, language and some violence. Metro.