|Illustration by Sean McCabe|
Were it not for Sigourney Weaver’s making the most of a showcase role and Jeff Daniels’s the best of an underwritten one, Imaginary Heroes would be a tedious downer. Written and directed by Dan Harris, who did better by imaginary heroes of another sort with X2: X-Men United, this new movie is earthbound in suburbia, visiting nearly every literary and cinematic neighborhood in that area, from John Cheever’s sodden quiet despair to Ordinary People's psychoanalyzed quiet despair. Harris is pretty much a one-note guy here, commencing his story with the tastefully off-camera suicide of a young man (Kip Pardue) and then following the reverberations of that act over the course of one year as it variously affects the boy’s mother (Weaver), father (Daniels), and younger teen brother (Emile Hirsch).
No surprise: They take it pretty badly. Dad had invested all his attention on eldest son Matt (Pardue) and the kid’s championship swimming career. Mom numbs the pain by commencing some regular dope-smoking, while brother Tim finds most solace with his next-door neighbor, pill-popping pal Kyle (Ryan Donowho). Dawson's Creek’s Michelle Williams, as a disaffected daughter, drops in from college occasionally to attend a funeral, a hospital, or a wayward New Year’s Eve party and always leaves without having made any impression—again, more a fault of Harris’s vague idea of characterization than the actress’s abilities.
While it’s impossible to imagine what made Weaver take this role when she’d already assayed a more brittle, ironic version of suburban ennui eight years ago in The Ice Storm, any viewer will be awfully glad she did. Just as she thawed Rick Moody’s glacial irony in the earlier role, Weaver takes her character, Sandy, and invests her with an array of emotions located almost nowhere in the dialogue. Weaver brings her best paradox—imperious impishness—to Sandy’s plight. Depressed over the suicide; emotionally estranged from her husband, Ben; enmeshed in some ridiculous warfare with her next-door neighbor (Deirdre O’Connell) that only makes sense three-quarters of the way through the film, Sandy, as Weaver creates her, opts to focus (or unfocus) her attention on the sheer absurdity of so many miserable entanglements with the hip hauteur of a woman done wrong by life.
Weaver has a few terrific scenes scoring her stash, and—after Harris actually makes her say she’s a “child of the sixties”—rolling and savoring her first joint in decades. More soberly, she reconnects with Tim, letting him know he’s loved even though his father has always treated him like crap. (When Weaver tells Tim, “You won’t understand how good I am for you until I die,” her wonderfully low-key wryness makes the words resound with wisdom.) Daniels’s Ben, meanwhile, is going through a self-pitying stage that leaves him sitting on a park bench staring vacantly, useless to either Sandy or Tim. And Hirsch’s Tim is one of those countless young movie anti-heroes who’s obliged to drift through every scene with a blank stare (I lay the blame for this cinematic cliché all the way back unto Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate); we know he’s feeling pain only because he must deliver Harris’s florid similes, such as a description of finding his brother’s body—“I stepped in the blood, and it was like a crater, like a giant canyon”—words (barely) more appropriate for a forties noir caper.
Harris jams a lot of revelations, plot “surprises,” and character motivation into the last half-hour of Imaginary Heroes. By that time, though, many viewers may be hanging around only to hear what fresh twist, what subtle mockery, Weaver can apply to Sandy’s situation. Instead, I’m tempted to tell you to bag Imaginary Heroes entirely and just read a Richard Yates or a Fay Weldon novel—they’re so much better at dramatizing muted middle-class angst and accessing the pleasures of this subgenre, in which shutdown people rev up. But that would deprive you of Daniels’s hangdog dignity and, especially, Weaver’s magnificent defense of Tim against a school bully and her enunciation of the F-word when she’s busted for drugs. At times like these, the actors aren’t just real troupers, but real, movie-saving heroes.