Every now and then I’m convinced that I see a totally different movie than every other film reviewer. Such is the case with Heights, the final movie produced by Ismael Merchant (Remains of the Day), which is directed by 28-year-old newcomer Chris Terrio and based on a short play by another unknown, Amy Fox. I found Heights compelling, authentic, unforgettable and, considering the youth of its main creators, breathtakingly impressive.
New Yorkers in general, and theater people in particular, pack more intensity into 24 hours than any other people on the planet. As Heights conveys, their typical day is nonstop activity in exciting locations all over the city, one intense human interaction after another. Living in “only two degrees of separation,” it’s a vibrant, thrilling, intricately connected lifestyle that only a few can survive unscathed, and emotional survival means saving face while untying the knots that complicate relationships.
A clear autumn day in New York emerges as more than unusually stressful for five of the city’s seemingly unconnected denizens. From the height of rooftops, each one makes a decision that completely turns their life around.
Diana Lee (Glenn Close, TV’s Lion in Winter) is a legendary actress/acting coach. “We’re not fiery people these days,” she taunts her tepid students. “We have lost our passion.” Alas, Diana, whose eye for young men never wanes, has no one but herself to blame when her husband rekindles his passion — with Diana’s understudy. Though grief-stricken, Diana chooses to face her looming loneliness not with the heat of jealousy, but with the coolness of a pro used to playing parts written by someone else.
Diana’s pale-by-comparison daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, 40-Year-Old Virgin), is a photographer who takes slivers of other people’s lives instead of living her own. Her too-handsome fiance, Jonathan (James Marsden, The 24th Day), has a brittle hold on truthfulness, including a catastrophic secret about his sexual past. An irrelevant rabbi (George Segal, The Mirror Has Two Faces) tries to smooth the path to matrimony, but it’s a dynamic Welsh painter (Andrew Howard, TV’s Lion in Winter) who helps Isabel push open the doors to her happiness.
Enter Peter (John Light, TV’s Lion in Winter), a journalist who’s tracing the former romantic flings of his current partner, a famous photographer of male nudes, for an article assigned by Vanity Fair‘s flamboyant editor (Isabella Rossellini, King of the Corner). Meanwhile, a young actor, Alec (Jesse Bradford, Swimfan), auditions for a play that Diana Lee is going to direct. When she invites him to her gala birthday party that evening, instead of jumping at the chance to meet everyone who could help his career, Alec begs off, claiming a previous commitment. Why would an actor make such a stupid, career-killing refusal? Why, indeed, are all the people in this movie doing subtle, self-destructive things?
Like any good play, Heights is symbol-rich: doors everywhere being forced open, uncoupling couples, secret passions, thoughtless betrayals, technology-thwarted intimacy, flame-tipped cigarettes, thirst-quenching beverages in vessels of all sizes — and the one constant in all the permutations: a mother’s love.
Heights isn’t for everyone. It’s cerebral, not visceral; it’s about artists and their particular needs. It’s theatrical, in every sense of the word. You’ll enjoy it if you realize you’re seeing a finely crafted play on screen and remember that the whole marvelous thing was created by people who are less than 30 years old. The promise of what’s to come from this director and writer, either together or on their separate ways, is part of the movie’s thrill. Rated Rated R for language, brief sexuality and nudity.
– reviewed by Marci Miller