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HEIGHTS (director/writer: Chris Terrio; screenwriter: Amy Fox/based on the play by Amy Fox; cinematographer: Jim Denault; editor: Sloane Klevin; music: Ben Butler/Martin Erskine; cast: Glenn Close (Diana Lee), Elizabeth Banks (Isabel Lee), James Marsden (Jonathan Kessler), John Light (Peter Light), Jesse Bradford (Alec), Matt Davis (Mark), George Segal (Rabbi Mendel), Jonathan Walker (Michael), Regina McMahon (Amanda), Andrew Howard (Ian), Isabella Rossellini (Liz, Vanity Fair Editor), Rufus Wainwright (Jeremy), Eric Bogosian (Director, Henry), Chandler Williams (Juilliard Macbeth); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ismail Merchant/Richard Hawley; Sony Pictures Classics; 2004)
“Though good in parts not good as a whole.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last film completed by the Merchant Ivory Productions with the unexpected death of Ismail Merchant. Debut director Chris Terrio bases Heights on the one-act play by Amy Fox, who is co-writer with the director. The romantic roundelay follows a few intense and self-absorbed New York arty theater types over a 24 hour stretch as they navigate their way around the Big Apple, act duplicitous and question their complicated lives as they search for direction. It’s overwritten, plodding, too theatrical and though good in parts not good as a whole. In its ambition to climb a skyscraper, it only reaches the third floor of a Chelsea apartment building before the plot line collapses from predictability and too many artificial devices. It’s better at tracking some of the zany New Yorkers and catching them do their neurotic thing than it is trying to make a poignant statement about the need to break down barriers to find a way to open up new doors of experience–a message which comes across as heavy-handed.

Diana Lee (Glenn Close) is a world famous Shakespearean actress of stage and screen who is in an open marriage, but re-thinks it as she’s now upset that hubby Michael is scoring her sexy and much younger understudy Amanda. Her pretty blonde twentysomething daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) is a struggling photographer who is engaged to uptight seemingly straightlaced Jewish lawyer Jonathan Kessler (James Marsden), whom she’s having second thoughts about marrying but has no one to confer with as she is of a different mindset than her unconventional mom. Jonathan can talk to his friendly rabbi (George Segal) and receive sound advice, but can’t be honest with himself to profit from such advice as he prefers to live out a lie and not tell his babe the truth about himself. Jonathan is unduly upset that journalist Peter (John Light) is in town writing a piece for Vanity Fair about next month’s photography exhibit showing in a NYC gallery of world famous British photographer Benjamin Stone’s latest collection of male nudes. He has the reputation of sleeping with all his models, and Peter is in town to interview all of the NYC based models. As a coincidence, struggling Fringe Festival actor Alec (Jesse Bradford) tries out for a part in Diana’s stage show and she comes onto him, but the bearded young man eludes her advances despite the chance to appear on Broadway and get paid real money for a change. A further coincidence is that he lives in the same Chelsea building as do Isabel and Jonathan, but claims not to know her daughter.

All our lead characters are insufferable, yearning for something they don’t have; Diana is the drama doyenne who appears onstage and all over town and on the sides of buses in large photo ads as Lady Macbeth, as Isabel looks up from her street walk only to see mom as Lady Macbeth staring out at her. Onstage the bloody queen spouts lyrical wisdom but offstage the vulnerable actress can’t seem to find the same clever lines to get herself together much less offer sound advice. So Isabel is left to learn from her own mistakes.

The way out for Isabel (as if anyone was really worried about her finding life after Jonathan!) comes when she meets goofy free-spirited Welsh artist Ian, who hits on her at her mom’s birthday party by spouting some bravado about breaking free and for her not to be a New York cliché. When all is said and done, nothing seemed that big a deal. But what ultimately won me over to this entangling melodrama was that the more the characters appeared as clichés the more real the film appeared to be. I somehow found that intriguing as well as inexplicable, and stayed with this one even though the dense plot was a drag.

Isabella Rossellini has a nice cameo as a Vanity Fair editor, as does Rufus Wainwright as one of the outspoken models interviewed by Peter, and Eric Bogosian as Close’s longtime director and confidante.

One of the film’s major faults, aside from the structural ones already mentioned, was that Banks and Marsden are too bland to carry the film in the intense heart-breaking way they were required to.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”