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.
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.