Film — Heights (R)


By Amy Diaz

Members of the upper-crust New York arts scene do the darnedest things in the relationship drama Heights.

If Chole Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale (or maybe Parker Posey) through some weird twist of science mated and produced a baby, the result would be Elizabeth Banks, the young calm cool-blooded counterweight to Glenn Close’s fiery craziness in Heights. Banks mingles the confidence and assuredness of Beckinsale and Posey with the innocence and hurt of Sevigny. Playing the part of an excellent photographer (a watcher, ya see, to Close’s actress, who is a doer) and an unhappy bride, Banks gives an intelligent performance of a women whose life has spun out of her control but who is unwilling to do anything that might call attention to that fact. In a movie dominated by Close’s big performance and by storylines that have more meat to them than simple unhappiness, Banks’ character’s quiet freak-out is one of the film’s most compelling aspects. While Banks seems too perfect for the role of disaffected New Yorker, she clearly deserves the opportunity to do more.

Focusing on Banks’ performance kept me from letting Heights wander too aimlessly across its gray landscape. Isabel (Banks) is a photographer who is talented but waiting for a break. Her gig as a wedding photographer is over and a chance to shoot a project for the New York Times is impossible because it interferes with her impending wedding to Jonathan (James Marsden). Not that that wedding is giving her a fit of the giggles — both Isabel and Jonathan look nervous and a bit ill whenever it comes up. In fact the only thing about her life with Jonathan that Isabel seems to have a good handle on is her steadfast desire to keep it separate from her mother, Diana Lee (Close), an actress whose talent is almost as massive as her ego. Diana isn’t terribly fond of Jonathan, though she never really has a good reason why. Perhaps it has to do with Diana’s own marriage, which is “open” — a code word to insulate her from feeling old or ignored by her husband’s philandering. She clearly is torn by it and makes up for it by chasing young men herself, young men like Alec (Jesse Branford), an actor who meets Diana at an audition. She takes a shine to him and invites him to a party at her house in part, you see, because he just happens to live in the same building as Jonathan and Isabel. Does he know them, she asks? No, no he doesn’t, he says, very quickly. But we hear him talking on his cellphone; the world is too small, he tells the person on the other end.

The gimmick with movies like this is the dramatic irony — the stuff we know that the people in the film don’t know but which we know they’re going to find out. We’re in on a part of their lives that they aren’t; what will they do when they find out? We get to guess and make our own what-would-we-do scenarios and match our reactions against the characters’. Because of the highly contrived nature of these stories, it’s the dialog, the characters and the actors that ultimately help the movie succeed or not. Mediocrity makes the set-up stand out; quality gets you talking about how contrived the story would be in a lesser movie.

Heights falls somewhere in the B-minus range — decent acting, so-so dialog, a bit too much woe-is-us. The movie succeeds more in moments than it does in generalities — conversations, reactions and expressions seem real but the things around them feel overly stagy.

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