Since the modern cinema could easily be said to have a chronic Glenn Close deficiency, it seemed just peachy when the 24-hours-in-some-New-Yorkers'-lives flick Heights opened with a good dose of the lady herself, only to see watch the film spend far too much of the rest of it dealing with other, lesser characters. Close plays Diana Lee, a famous actress moonlighting as an acting teacher who, in that opening scene, tears apart two of her students in front of the whole class, castigating them for their rote recitations of Macbeth. She declaims the modern age's loss of grand emotions and the substitution of meekness, fairly screaming at her worshipful wannabes, "Passion!" If only the movie that proceeded from that point had followed her advice.
As possibly the last film to come out from Merchant Ivory Productions before the May 2005 passing away of Ismail Merchant, Heights is a good deal more lively than the stiff-necked product the duo became known for, but still suffers from a certain bloodlessness. Based on a one-act play and stretched to its limit, the film follows a few New Yorkers through their day as they run about Chelsea and downtown, leading artistic lives and holding some very obvious secrets. Somewhere along the way the viewer is supposed to go "ah!" as the disparate elements come clicking together, but they're more likely to have lost interest at that point, as the light comedy is continually interspersed with a leavening of twentysomething lassitude.
Diana Lee's daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a photographer always in her mother's shadow, is gearing up to marry handsome yuppie Jonathan (James Marsden) and deciding whether to accept a job offer from a former lover. Meanwhile, a journalist is snooping around and interviewing all the ex-boyfriends of a legendary photographer, and Jonathan just happens to be one of them. In order to get back at her cheatin' husband, Diana flirts relentlessly with young actor Alec (Jesse Bradford), inviting him to a big party she's throwing. Somewhere in the mix, Eric Bogosian pops up, along with Rufus Wainwright, Isabella Rossellini, and some truly remarkable New York location photography. Alas, it's far from enough.
Problems arise with the film's focus on the performance of Banks, a perfectly adorable actress who can't quite bring much of anything to the party. It's one thing to know that Isabel trying to assert herself in the face of such a Shakespearean whirlwind of a mother, and it's another to have to watch it - in short, how could Diana have given birth to such a drip? Marsden does a little better, though as in the X-Men films, he's still letting his chiseled features do most of the acting. The performers dotted along the sidelines are a more enjoyable bunch and bring a welcome sense of play to this slight material. Bradford is especially light on his feet, going toe-to-toe with Close and coming out quite unscathed on the other side. But the fact remains that this is ultimately a meek little slip of a film, hardly worthy of any of the talent at hand.
Heights and lows.