Reel Time

Do You Feel Holy, Punk?

Keanu Reeves in Constantine. Plus, Imaginary Heroes.

Imaginary Heroes is an admirable clunker. The writer and director, Dan Harris, is willing to tackle dark issues of the psyche that don’t make it into movies often enough. But the film plays like one of those memoirs that don’t quite transcend an individual’s weird life. It has strong moments and fine, unsentimental performances, but it doesn’t jell as a story.

It starts out like it might—with a page out of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: a narrated account of a champion high-school swimmer, Matt Travis (Kip Pardue) regarded as a god by his classmates, coaches, and father, Ben (Jeff Daniels). The twist here is that the boy doesn’t like to swim. The other twist is that he kills himself a couple of minutes into the picture. The narrator turns out to be his younger brother, Tim (Emile Hirsch), the family introvert/artist. No one can make up for the loss of Matt, but Tim feels especially inadequate. He has never been close to his dad, and now there’s no possibility: Ben checks out of the real world, insisting that a place be set at the dinner table for his dead son and spending days on park benches staring into space. His mother, Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), was edgy and bitter when Matt was alive. At this point, she’s staring into the abyss.

It’s always good to see Weaver in a meaty role, but Sandy doesn’t stretch her—and she’s better when she stretches. She’s almost too comfortable with exchanges like this one between her and Tim, after she coughs suspiciously: “When was the last time you went to a doctor?” “When they tied my tubes.” (Harris is a clever writer, and he knows it.) Weaver has a good, haggard affect and wonderful scene when she finds her son’s marijuana and gets stoned on the lawn, but the performance takes place in a vacuum. (It’s meant to, but that somehow doesn’t compensate.) The dramatic issues are: “Will Ben regain his sanity and save his family?” “Will Sandy reconcile with her next-door-neighbor (Deidre O’Connell) and why are are they estranged, anyway?” And, “Where did Tim get those bruises on his back?” I think we’re supposed to be turned inside-out over all this, but most people will feel only mild curiosity.

Imaginary Heroes (I’ve forgotten what the title means—literally, it didn’t stay in my head for even 15 minutes after the movie ended) is another film in which suburbia is shown to be a place where surfaces are immaculate and under them people are going quietly crazy. Suburbanites demonstrate their materialism and insensitivity whenever they have a few drinks: They chatter about how good morticians have become to people in mourning, etc. Given the way suburbia is portrayed in movies, plays, and novels, it’s a wonder anyone survives it without writing movies, plays, and novels. Maybe no one does. … 4:24 p.m. PT

Thursday, Feb. 17, 2004

Do You Feel Holy, Punk?: In Constantine (Warner Bros.), earnest and somewhat knotty discussions of theology and metaphysics alternate with locust monsters, screeching demons, and burned and bubbling flesh. It’s a little like the Louvre. Or the Vatican Museums. The point is, even the faithful enjoy a bit (or, in the case of Mel Gibson’s last picture, a bucket) of gore with their Biblical sagas. That said, our ancestors might have gotten a better deal with Caravaggio and Bosch. We’re stuck with twentysomething music-video directors and Keanu Reeves.

In The Matrix and its sequels, Reeves was the messiah, the One. Here, he’s Dirty Harry as an exorcist. Scripture is his .44 magnum. The unshaven, dissolute John Constantine strides into the bedroom of the latest possessed child, lights a cigarette, and calls the demon an “asshole.” It’s his job, he says, to “import their sorry asses back to hell,” by which I think he means “export” their sorry asses back to hell. (A good lawyer could get the exorcism reversed on grounds of illiteracy.) After disposing of this hellspawn, Constantine shakes his head and tells his eager apprentice (Shia LaBeouf), “That exorcism wasn’t right.” It seems that the demon was attempting to “cross over” into this world, and demons, of course, don’t do that. Well, they did that every goddamned week on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but each hell picture seems to have its own rules. The wittiest touch in Constantine is that there are a couple of extra chapters of the Book of Revelation in hell’s library. I can’t believe I just typed the words, “hell’s library.”

The son of Satan is bent on breaking through into this world and ushering in an age of “betrayal, murder, and genocide” (sort of like what we’re in now). Early on, a Mexican worker finds the “spear of destiny,” which supposedly delivered the death blow to Jesus on the cross, and it turns him into an indestructible superman—although he still has to drive to L.A., which takes him half the movie. Constant Johnny decides to stop all these satanic shenanigans, with help from a telepathic police detective (Rachel Weisz) named Angela and her twin sister, presently residing in hell but sending regular psychic e-mails. Surprisingly, Constantine is not a man of faith. When Angela asks about God’s plans for mankind, he says, “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady. He’s not planning anything.” So, uh … the Scripture exorcises demons because they think God gives a damn? It’s like a placebo?

Constantine, directed by MTV auteur Francis Lawrence from a screenplay (based on the Hellblazer comics) by Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello, is borderline incoherent, theologically unsatisfying, and short to the point of dwarfism on suspense. The central problem—our selfish hero must do one unselfish act to get into heaven—is not exactly Miltonic, either. But it’s all just bloody and loopy and epic-scaled enough to be bearable. I liked Constantine’s bowling-alley headquarters and the metaphysical nightclub where the bouncer holds up a card and you only get in if you can say what’s on the other side. Tilda Swinton, as the angel Gabriel, seems to be doing a send-up of Emma Thompson in Angels in America. (At least, I hope she is.) And it’s worth sticking around for the appearance of the certifiably strange Swede Peter Stormare as someone referred to as “Lou.” He’s like an Ingmar Bergman devil by way of Joel and Ethan Coen, a genuine hipster from hell. … 2:30 p.m. PT

Correction: I’m happy to report that Keanu Reeves’ Constantine says neither “export” nor “import” but “deport.” I would use this opportunity to complain about Reeves’ diction, but that would be churlish. I offer my apologies to the screenwriters for casting aspersions on their literacy.