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'Imaginary Heroes' full of viable ideas, but becomes messy and disorganized

| Friday, April 1, 2005

The first -- and best -- 10 minutes of "Imaginary Heroes" announce emphatically that we're on "Ordinary People" turf and not too far afield of "The Ice Storm."

In the comfortable, if temperamentally chilly, suburban home of the dysfunctional Travis family, 17-year-old narrator Tim (Emile Hirsch) tells us that older brother Matt (Kip Pardue) swims better than anyone else does anything else.

And that Matt hates swimming more than anyone else hates anything else.

Matt is swimming toward the Olympics to please their father Ben (Jeff Daniels), who lives for the one son's achievements.

When Matt blows his brains out offscreen, the shocked Ben snaps cruelly at Tim, then withdraws to park benches, staring into space, while the boys' mother Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) becomes closer than ever to Tim. In her fashion.

She tells him that he won't fully appreciate until after she's dead how good she was for him.

Writer-director Dan Harris, who also wrote "X2: X-Men United," romanticizes Sandy and her counterculture streak.

She describes herself as a child of the '60s. As movies today sell a single, narrow, idealized view of what it was to be young in the 1960s, her view of herself suggests an absolute that we're presumed to share.

She begins -- or resumes -- smoking pot, counsels Tim as if she were a cool hippie sibling and behaves badly toward neighbor Marge (Deirdre O'Connell), whose son Kyle (Ryan Donowho) is Tim's Ecstasy-laced best friend.

And that's only the beginning of a year so loaded with accidents, arrests, angst, health worries, sexual pasts and presents and the spilling of secrets that the sheer quantity of incidents and disclosures force "Imaginary Heroes" to buckle under the weight.

Harris' screenplay is peppered with viable ideas, including the disillusionment attendant to meeting heroes and the notion of maintaining the dead son's presence at meals.

But it's as messy and disorganized as the Travises' lives.

Harris, who was 24 when he made the film, wrote it even before he did "X2." "Imaginary Heroes" plays like a trunkload of undigested adult themes shoveled into one script.

Repetitious scenes of substance abuse seem designed to imbue characters with sympathy or profundity, but they're uninformative rather than organic. Elements in serious drama beg exploration and amplification. "Imaginary Heroes" suggests that Harris might find his voice by honing the themes he's prepared to develop with an adult's insight.

Additional Information:

Details

'Imaginary Heroes'

Director: Dan Harris

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels

MPAA rating: R for substance abuse, sexual content, language and some violence

Now playing: Harris, Downtown

Two stars

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