Heights

         Cinema suffered a loss with the recent death of Ismail Merchant. Many may
 eschew the Merchant Ivory tradition of quality dramas (often period pieces adapted
 from works of literature), but I have always had a soft spot for many of their movies.
 If a film had the Merchant Ivory imprimatur, audiences could expect something special.
 Even a misfire could have something praiseworthy, whether a performances or a
 technical achievement. I’m pleased to say that one of the last films personally
 overseen by Merchant, a contemporary drama called
HEIGHTS, is an excellent entry
 in the canon.

         Adapted by Amy Fox from her one-act play of the same name, with additional
 screenplay material by debut director Chris Terrio,
HEIGHTS chronicles a day in the
 life of an eclectic group of Manhattan residents. At the center of the piece is Isabel
 (Elizabeth Banks, perhaps best recalled as Jeff Bridges’ wife in
SEABISCUIT), a
 struggling photographer reduced to shooting weddings while planning her own
 upcoming nuptials to lawyer Jonathan (James Marsden). Isabel is the daughter
 of award-winning diva Diana Lee (a dark-haired Glenn Close), who obviously is
 trying out for the title of hardest working woman in show business. Between
 teaching a Master Class at Juilliard, rehearsing the female lead in a Broadway
 production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and directing a separate Off-Broadway
 production, it’s a wonder she has any time for anything.

         HEIGHTS also follows two other characters, aspiring actor Alec (Jesse
 Bradford), who auditions for Diana and happens to live in the same apartment
 building as Isabel, and Peter (John Light), the current lover of famed photographer
 Benjamin Stone, hired by
Vanity Fair to write a profile of the artist. The twist for
 Peter is that all of the men he is set to interview have posed for the photographer
 and have slept with him.

         With the exception of Peter (who acts as the catalyst), each of the other four
 main characters faces a difficult decision and must come to terms with some secret
 desire. Isabel is offered a dream job by an ex-boyfriend (Matt Davis) who hopes
 that the offer will drive her back into his arms. Diana discovers the price for her busy
 life: her open marriage is crumbling as she recognizes that her husband has fallen
 in love with her understudy. Jonathan has a secret in his past that he has been
 hiding from Isabel and its disclosure could threaten the perfect world he seemingly
 has built. Alec must decide whether to pursue his dream or to continue a seemingly
 stalled love affair.

         There are a few minor quibbles one might have with the screenplay, namely the
 seemingly the reliance of dropping the names of real places that end up as settings
 for scenes, but that is minor. Fox has written full, three dimensional characters with
 real problems that aren’t all neatly wrapped up when the film ends. Terrio directs the
 action with the flair and fluidity of a veteran, marking him as one to watch. Under his
 watchful guidance, the actors are uniformly excellent. There are astringent cameo
 appearances from Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright, Thomas Lennon and Michael
 Murphy, and a wonderful warm, witty supporting turn by George Segal as a rabbi
 counseling Jonathan and Isabel on their interfaith marriage.

         Banks effectively holds the center of the film while Close does some of her best
 work in a long time as the demanding diva. Ascendant actors Jesse Bradford, James
 Marsden, Matt Davis, Andrew Howard (as a party guest who challenges Isabel’s
 belief system), and John Light all offer strong support as well.

         Despite its occasional flaw,
HEIGHTS is one of the best films to come along
 in a while and it serves as a fitting tribute to the producing genius of the late Ismail
 Merchant and a great calling card for novices Fox and Terrio.


                    Rating:                                A-
                    MPAA Rating:                    R for language, nudity and sexual themes
                    Running time:                    94 mins.

                                            Viewed at the Sony Screening Room
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.