USA, 2004. Rated R. 93  minutes.

Cast: Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, John Light, Matt Davis, Eric Bogosian, Isabella Rossellini, George Segal, Rufus Wainwright, Andrew Howard, Denis O'Hare, Michael Murphy, Yolanda Ross
Writers: Amy Fox and Chris Terrio (additional material), based on the stage play by Amy Fox
Original Music: Martin Erskine, Ben Butler
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Producers: Ismail Merchant, Richard Hawley
Director: Chris Terrio


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I s there any place in the world like New York? Everyone there is an actor, or a writer, or a photographer—all of them fast-paced glamorous people living a fast-paced glamorous life. In this vast city of millions (2.5 million on the island of Manhattan alone) everyone seems to know each other. How can such an island be so…insular?

That's the way New York always seems in the movies. Particularly this movie. In Heights, elitist, incestuous New York people have the kind of elitist, incestuous New York problems that elitist, incestuous New York people tend to have. Oh sure, Heights concerns a group of young artists struggling to find themselves, but even the life of a struggling artist comes off as spoiled and privileged in Heights. These are all college graduates entering life with every advantage in the world, after all.

A movie that wants to portray these people's problems inevitably faces a question: Why do we care? The Anniversary Party, to cite one example, answered that question very well, portraying its rich, self-absorbed lost souls with equal measures of sympathy and satire, finding the universal elements of the story and poking fun at the rest. Heights answers that question less well, though well enough to hold an audience.

Eric Bogosian and Glenn Close
Eric Bogosian and Glenn Close share a moment in Heights.

Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), the least convincing photographer in the history of photography (all of it—from early Daguerrotypes to the digital age), prevaricates about her upcoming wedding to lawyer Jonathan (James Marsden). An sadistic, egomaniacal artist is to be the subject of an in-depth magazine piece, and decrees that all his former lovers be interviewed by the author, who happens to be his current lover Peter (John Light). A young actor, Alec (Jesse Bradford), auditions for Isabel's mother Diana (Glen Close), but when Diana takes an interest in him, holds her at arm's length. Diana, a big theater star playing Lady MacBeth on Broadway, opens the film by lecturing a group of actors on passion. “We're not fiery people. We're not even ice. We are tepid voyeurs,” she declares, only to display her own lack of passion when she discovers her husband is having an affair. There's your message, right up front. Be passionate, people.

Because lack of passion is the defining issue of Heights, it's not so easy to connect with its characters. It would help if more charismatic, complex actors had been cast. While Glen Close dominates the screen with effortless assurance, Banks lacks personality and would probably dissipate in a strong ocean breeze. Marsden is faintly reminiscent of Mark Ruffalo, but not nearly half the actor. Bradford is faintly reminiscent of Colin Farrell, but not nearly half the actor. It isn't really their fault, though. Heights is a film about issues, situations, and problems, not about personalities (with Diane the notable exception). Heck, Peter's lover Benjamin, the strongest personality in the film (propelling action and influencing characters), never appears on screen!

Heights, based on co-writer Amy Fox's eponymous play, struggles to break free of its theatrical origins. The talky, convoluted, coincidence-dependent storyline lacks a visual dimension. It isn't enough to place a few key scenes on a rooftop and have a character observe that problems look so very small from up there. Film isn't the same medium as the stage. To fully engage an audience, you need to see the characters' problems fully manifest themselves, not just listen to actors talk about them.

Heights isn't a bad movie, and it certainly is a clever movie, with how all the story lines converge at the end with life-changing consequences for all involved. The coincidences are too many, however, for a twenty-four hour period. It's worth noting that the film began as a comedy, because Heights definitely feels like a comedy trying to be an overly earnest drama. There are powerful moments, but there are also moments that ring false and call out for a little irony and humor. Some kind of signal from Chris Terrio—some indication that the co-writer/director understands the world is larger than these navel gazers realize—would go a long way to helping an audience connect with the story.

Cleverness gets you through the film's running time, making it fun to sit through and watch the dominoes fall one by one, revealing secrets and wreaking emotional havoc, even if it is a little soap operatic. That's all many filmgoers will ask. But it doesn't sit that well later when you realize how preposterous the whole thing is, and that it doesn't ultimately have anything more to say than Diane's declarations at the start of the film.

Review © June 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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