Another plunge into the emotional underworld of American suburbia, Imaginary Heroes may be the first of its kind to mirror the form of a dysfunctional family: It looks good. It seems to work. It occasionally coheres into a priceless moment. But in the end, the pieces don't all fit together as they should. Writer-director Dan Harris is best known for co-writing the screenplay for the second X-Men movie, and he's on board to pen a script for Superman. His sensitive command of characters makes it easy to see why he fits so easily into those gigs. In Imaginary Heroes, everyone practically quivers under the influence of all-consuming emotions. That tone makes the perfect counterpoint to explosions and laser-beam eyes, but when not balanced by mutant adventures, the constant parade of raw-wound emotions eventually becomes a bit much to take.
Imaginary Heroes' cast thankfully provides considerable distraction. Able to capture a troubled inner life masquerading as shyness better than just about any other young actor, Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) stars as a high-school senior whose year of class-ditching and study-hall naps is rudely interrupted when his older brother (Kip Pardue) commits suicide. A Michael Phelps-caliber swimming talent, Pardue takes the dreams of his mom and dad with him: Sigourney Weaver's chain-smoking takes on a new intensity, while Jeff Daniels' creeping obliviousness develops a demented edge. Having fled for college, sister Michelle Williams has no intentions of returning, which leaves Hirsch alone to sort through his unexpectedly conflicted feelings about his brother's death.
Had Harris let Hirsch's slow journey into the light serve as his focus, he probably would have ended up with a less unwieldy film. Instead, he layers one problem atop another, stacking repressed sexual orientations atop extramarital affairs, substance problems, DUI arrests, family secrets, and a cancer scare. Overload sets in quickly, making Imaginary Heroes play at first like the pretty-good-but-impossible-to-follow third episode of a TV show. But as the film drags on, it becomes less about human drama than about who's collapsing in a heap at any given moment. And why. And why anyone should still care.