Imaginary Heroes attempts to live by an ancient Hollywood proverb: ''If we pull out all the histrionic stops, the audience will respond.'' Incidentally, the film dies--albeit in its sleep, thanks to a strong performance turned in by Sigourney Weaver--by this very notion.
A formulaic dramedy till the end, Heroes is equal thirds Igby Goes Down, Life as a House and a sub-par hybrid of the two. The Travis family is desperately trying to cope with the recent suicide of their budding swimming-star son, Matt (Kip Pardue). But it's all in vain: Matt's sister, Penny (Michelle Williams), is away at college, seemingly aloof from the whole situation; Matt's father, Ben (Jeff Daniels), is supposedly on leave from work, but he spends his days on a bench in a catatonic state; Matt's kid brother, Tim (Emile Hirsch), is, well, up to no good and feeling alienated from everything and everyone; and Matt's mother, Sandy (Weaver), is left to try and hold the family together, even though she is crumbling from the same reasons the others are. But thanks to her newfound affinity for marijuana, Sandy's able to take the crises with a grain of pot, er, salt, as it were. Central to the story is the unusual closeness between Sandy and Tim, who are disenchanted with life and relationships. And nobody really gets along with Tim, or understands him for that matter. Ultimately, Tim's introspection and beating to his own drum help to right the ship, but it does not come without the usual bumps on the tearjerker road: drugs, fights, arrests, and heart-tugging illness.
The cast--and family--is led by the always-reliable Weaver. She does justice to her role as Sandy, the straight-shooting, pot-smoking, neo-mom. The last time Weaver donned the maternal hat was in 2002's Tadpole for which she also received rave reviews. In that movie, however, she was actually a stepmother, and lest we forget the incestuous undertones between her and her stepson, played eerily well by Aaron Stanford. After Weaver's Sandy, there is a noticeable drop-off in the acting, but that's only a testament to her own strong performance. Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) proves that he probably has a nice future ahead, even if it means merely taking roles on which the seemingly ubiquitous Shia LaBeouf passes. He brings a refreshing sense of urgent angst to an otherwise trite role in contemporary film. Rounding out the core cast is Daniels, who spends about as much time on-screen as he does with his family in the film: very little. The role of deadbeat-dad Ben seems to find him well, but he (shockingly!) reemerges as Family Man and defuses the tensions between the Travises, most notably between him and Tim.
Writer/director Dan Harris is anything but a household name at this point in his young career--the same goes for this film, his directorial debut--but to the surprise of most, he has amassed quite a box office track record. Case in point: After working his way up with relatively menial jobs behind the scenes of typical Hollywood fare from 1998 to 2003, Harris penned X2: X-Men United, which would go on to earn $215 million. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he landed the coveted, but no less difficult, task of writing the screenplay for one of the most highly anticipated films (by moviegoers and producers alike) of 2006: Superman Returns, directed by his X2 director Bryan Singer. These credentials afforded Harris the opportunity to take on a small, dramatic labor of love like Heroes. Harris' hit-or-miss jokes throughout the film, littered between grave family dilemmas, allude to his theme of comedy in times of crisis. As a writer, he evokes an Anytown suburbia, fraught with misbehaving teenagers, dark secrets between neighbors and problems and rebellion within the families to suggest that it happens all the time. As a rookie director, he simply shows the ability to get the best he can from his actors--nothing less, but unfortunately nothing more, either. Harris shows enough promise to probably cement a future as a go-to guy for heavy dramas. But he'll be hard-pressed to find the time as his writing career flourishes with impending blockbuster franchises.
Although ultimately affecting with a fine ensemble cast, Sigourney Weaver and co. are not heroic enough to rescue Imaginary Heroes from the pits of melodramatic mediocrity; it might have been better suited as an after-school special.