By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 16, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Imaginary Heroes: John clifford

Few hack-movie gambits are more false, or annoying, than using ”grief” as an excuse to fill the screen with outsize domestic quirks. In Imaginary Heroes, how do we know that the Travis family — led by Sigourney Weaver in full, brittle, sarcastic-showboat mode — is living in denial of the pain caused by the suicide of its high school superstar-jock son? Because the writer-director, Dan Harris, keeps nudging us in the solar plexus to register every coy behavioral tic he can dream up.

It’s not enough, for instance, that Weaver’s Sandy Travis smokes dope — she’s got to get herself arrested for it. Emile Hirsch, as the younger Travis son, has perfected the Fake Indie Rebel Stare (blankness as an expression of hidden sensitivity), and one might say that Jeff Daniels is cast against type as the resentful, stubble-faced jerk of a father, except that Daniels slips between italicized outbursts and his usual teddy bear mannerisms. He’s a nice, sweet bastard dad. Nothing in Imaginary Heroes rings true, least of all a plot that lightly combines domestic abuse, adulterous pregnancy, teen bisexuality, job abandonment, and a possible case of Mysterious Movie Disease. These are not ordinary people. Or real ones.