It seems safe to assume that not a single person has ever asked for a dramatic take on 1991’s cult comedy Drop Dead Fred, in which Phoebe Cates is forced to confront her obnoxious imaginary childhood friend when he re-enters her troubled adult life, wreaking comedic mischief along the way. Yet here we are, 28 years later, with the deadly solemn thriller Daniel Isn’t Real. Unfortunately for us, instead of the charming Cates, we’re stuck with the charisma-free Miles Robbins as Luke, a struggling college freshman contending with a mentally-disturbed mother (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) and hallucinations straight out of Naked Lunch. His childhood wasn’t much better, which might explain why he invented imaginary friend Daniel in the first place — although there is no discernible explanation as to why Daniel is presented as a seven-year-old, ’50s-era greaser. After Luke and Daniel serve mom a Haldol milkshake, Luke is forced to banish his best friend to a creepy old dollhouse, summoning him again years later when a therapist suggests Luke get back in touch with his imagination. Before long, Luke has friends, potential love interests, and a knack for photography (okay?). But Daniel doesn’t like playing second fiddle, and soon he begins taking control of Luke’s life in harmful ways.
But just as the film allows the audience to begin to see the puzzle pieces of this allegory click into the place, director/co-writer Adam Egypt Mortimer pulls the rug out, presenting a twist of such confounding stupidity that it has to be seen to be believed, with the metaphorical becoming quite literal. The biggest problem with Daniel Isn’t Real is that Mortimer firmly believes the material to be far more clever than it actually is, which grows increasingly obnoxious the longer the film drags on. It doesn’t help that Patrick Schwarzenegger plays Daniel like he’s channeling Stuart Townsend’s vampiric goth rocker from 2002’s Queen of the Damned, which…is certainly a choice. Mortimer actually has some chops as a director, cribbing mostly from the three Davids — Lynch, Cronenberg, and Fincher — with a dollop of Harmony Korine thrown in for good measure. Nothing about his style is original, but it results in a few moments of memorable fantastical imagery, most notably when Daniel possesses Luke for the first time, facial flesh melding into one. It’s enough to suggest that with the right script, Mortimer might actually have a career ahead of him. Then again, in 28 years, Daniel Isn’t Real could have its own cult following, with Mortimer declared a misunderstood genius. If only my imagination was that boundless.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.