Imaginary Heroes has all the elements in place to be a strong drama — a stacked cast, a talented young director, several individual scenes of nigh-extraordinary power. But when the dust settles, the movie is just too much, piling on conflict after conflict, dysfunction after dysfunction until his characters seem ready to cry for help – not because of what ostensibly ails them, but because they’ve been through more than could possibly happen to a human being in a limited span of time. Even the most potent material loses meaning when we stop believing it.
The key, I think, is that it’s possible to sell me on just about anything, as long as it seems to come from within the film. This is difficult to explain. There is a difference between developments that are generated by the plot and the characters and ones that are tyrannically imposed upon same by an omnipotent screenwriter. It is the difference between “A is B and B is C, thus A is C,” and “A is B and B is C, thus A is D by fiat.” A good story will develop organically as a sequence of events within its universe, and good characters will interact with that story as people would, subject to whatever rules of the game the writer sets.
Here, alas, is a film that begins as an affecting exploration of a family grieving in interesting ways and ends as some sort of bizarre experiment wherein writer-director Dan Harris tries to see what fresh hell he can unleash on his characters before his movie bursts at the seams. It concerns the suicide of a star swimmer (Kip Pardue), and the effect it has on his dedicated father (Jeff Daniels), uptight but understanding mother (Sigourney Weaver), and generally confused little brother (Emile Hirsch). The dad, whose entire life was invested in his older son’s athletic career, is reduced to literally nothing; Sandy, the mom, becomes struck by the meaninglessness and stupidity of everyone and everything around her, and takes up smoking pot. Tim, the bright underachiever in his brother’s shadow, has to mediate while trying to figure out what the hell is going on in his life.
All right. I’m usually not much for movies that give each of their characters a quirk and then attempt to resolve it in some clever way, but this looked like it was being handled with a modicum of intelligence. The narration that opens Imaginary Heroes (“Matt Travis was a great swimmer”) is the sort of moderately transporting cue that makes me sit up, a hint that here’s a movie that’s interested in telling a story. For a total narrative junkie like myself, this is promising.
And for a while, Imaginary Heroes hums along fine. I liked the interaction between Tim and his father Ben, who can think to do nothing to ease his son’s pain aside from offering him money. Though I never quite took to the marijuana subplot, I thought Sandy was an effective character; there is a remarkably moving scene where she confesses to Tim that he is the only think keeping her from committing suicide. The three leads, who also happen to be three of my favorite actors, find consistent approaches to their roles, and the film seems destined to proceed to an at least somewhat satisfactory conclusion.
There is a point, though, where we realize that Harris has stirred in more elements than he can possibly deal with before 112 minutes are up. Perhaps it’s the sudden gay kiss, or the revelation about Sandy’s relationship with her neighbor, or the plot twist that redefines everything that came before. No, actually it’s not the plot twist: that part could have worked had the rest of the film been tighter. By the time we reach the end, there are hospital beds and absurd tonal shifts to go along with the expected tearful reconciliations, and it becomes apparent that the director is determined to smother these people in Issues.