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The only thing worse than real depression is movie depression. Because for every Garden State or Girl, Interrupted, there are twice as many supposedly nuanced portraits of melancholia that just take a couple of walking wounded and slap on a big ol’ frowny face or two. Both Campbell Scott’s Off the Map and Dan Harris’ Imaginary Heroes opt for this approach, and although their central depressives couldn’t be more different, neither is anything more than a cartoon.
In Off the Map, a cowboy gets the blues. Sam Elliott plays Charley Groden, a ’70s-style family man living off a patch of New Mexican desert with his hippie wife, Arlene (Joan Allen), and Blossomesque daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis). Besides receiving a small VA stipend, the clan is entirely self-sufficient—and entirely annoying: Mom sells the flowers that she cultivates, naked, in the garden, while 11-year-old Bo happily home-schools herself with big, fat books on economics and Spanish history. Bo contributes to the Grodens’ sustenance by hunting for supper squirrel, careful to acknowledge her bounty with a pert “Bless you and thank you for nourishing us.” Meanwhile, Dad—well, he’s depressed, so he just stares off into space, occasionally shedding a single tear as his kin go about their preciousness.
It doesn’t take long before Off the Map, written by Joan Ackermann and based on her play of the same title, starts to veer all over it. With three characters vying for focus, the story belongs to no one: The purple narration of the adult Bo (Amy Brenneman) introduces her father’s despair as the dominating force of one summer—“It was inescapable, my father’s depression”—and, sure enough, Charley is shown mopey and unresponsive as his family tiptoes around him in every early scene. Soon, however, it’s precocious little Bo who takes center stage, busying herself with too-cute projects such as applying for a MasterCard or writing haughty letters of complaint to snack companies, resulting in caseloads of apologetic product being sent to their middle-of-nowhere home.
And by the second half of Off the Map we’re introduced to William (Jim True-Frost), a young IRS agent who becomes ill while auditing the Grodens. Though William at first doesn’t quite know what to make of the husband and wife who greet him au naturel, he quickly falls in love with their quirky, isolated way of life. He’s so damn inspired by it, in fact, that he goes on to become a famous artist.
Hello? Anyone remember Dad’s inescapable depression?
Unfortunately, it’s still there, apparently reanimated (albeit overshadowed) by the melodrama of William’s childhood. As infuriating as Catatonic Charley was, Ackermann’s dialogue makes Chatty Charley even worse: “I am a damn crying machine,” Elliott implausibly growls with the tough-guy ’tude of his former roles. Allen fares better as the easygoing Arlene, but True-Frost vies with de Angelis for the most irritating of them all. At least his dopey William gets one of Ackermann’s only funny (and unaffected) lines when he responds to the question of whether he’s ever gone through depression with an offhand “I’ve never been not depressed.”
Mostly, though, Ackermann tamps down any levity with Bo’s narration, which has all the ponderousness of a brooding teenager’s journal entries as it ascribes deep meaning to the family story’s every turn. Scott, meanwhile, tries to amp up the purported mysticism of a land that can turn accountants into artistes, his camera zooming into the eyes of the Grodens’ coyote neighbors and leisurely taking in New Mexico’s barren skyline as tribal music accentuates the primitiveness of it all. It’s clear that the filmmakers wish to present this story of life in the desert as so natural, so enchanting, that normally sensible audience members will want to drop out themselves—or at least visit. More likely, though, their most lasting impression of the way-out West will come from William: “Are you all on mushrooms or something?”
No one’s on ’shrooms in Imaginary Heroes, though that seems to be the only drug the pill-happy characters don’t ingest. When a champion teenage swimmer and jewel of the family commits suicide, what else is a messed-up upper-class household to do?
The craziest of the crazies here is Sandy Travis (Sigourney Weaver), a woman so bitter that when her neighbor Marge (Deirdre O’Connell) “dares” to have a cigarette outside on the day of Sandy’s son’s funeral, she seethes, “She’s blowing the smoke in my face!” Of course, there’s a reason the women hate each other, though it’s a long time coming—just like the stories behind why Dad (Jeff Daniels) dislikes sullen younger son Tim (Emile Hirsch), or how Tim got those cuts on his back, or what’s really causing Sandy’s cough. Wait, that last one’s not exactly resolved—call it a case of Movie Disease, as abruptly forgotten about as it is brought up.
Clearly, the Travises have a lot more to worry about than the messy death of Matt (Kip Pardue), whom Tim tiresomely describes in the film’s opening narration as being “greater at swimming than anyone I knew was great at whatever they were good at,” yet who “hated it more than anyone I knew hated,” etc. This verbiage comes courtesy of writer-director Harris, who, though a first-time helmer, counts the estimable X2 among his previous screenwriting credits. Given the disastrous script of Imaginary Heroes—one in which a teenage brother and sister have the exchange, “Is there such a thing as a human heart?”/“If you listen closely, you can hear them breaking”—it seems likely that Harris was in charge of, say, copy-editing while the other credited writers supplied all the wit, intelligence, and fun.
The only fun Imaginary Heroes’ characters have is of the drug-induced kind, including an E-fueled holiday encounter between Tim and his neighbor Kyle (the appropriately named Ryan Donowho) that caps an endless montage of straight couples kissing to the strains of “Have Yourself a Mary”—er—“Merry Little Christmas.” Hirsch, at least, with hair in eyes and pout on lips, is believable as a moping stoner whose demeanor was just as sullen before he lost his brother. Weaver, however, as a sudden pot enthusiast, reacting to the wacky weed as if she had just dropped acid? Well, the only thing more ridiculous is her husband locking himself in the family sedan and soothing his sorrows with Pure Prairie League’s “Let Me Love You Tonight.” (Be forewarned: Eddie Money gets a lot of play, too.)
Even before the Yuletide experimenting, it feels as if Imaginary Heroes should be winding to a merciful close. But then a placard announcing “WINTER” fills the screen, and you realize that there’s probably also going to be a spring and a summer—with, of course, the revelation of more secrets and the unleashing of more dialogue such as “I will fuck with everything you hold dear!” The long-awaited moral seems to be, as Sandy tells Tim, “Things fall apart, and you put them back together.” Or you could just walk out of the theater.CP