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The last of Ismail Merchant's films, set in New York City, is a voyeuristic journey into the interlocking lives of five people struggling in their relationships and in their own skins. An actress, a photographer, a lawyer, a wannabe, a journalist - "Heights" is a montage of New York characters, some intriguing, some as dull as dishwater. In fact, Glenn Close admits as much, at the very beginning of the film. Most of us, she says to a group of Juilliard students, are like "tap water," we lack passion, electricity, and the will to take action.
Close's character, Diana, a famous veteran of the Broadway stage, who specializes in Shakespeare, fails to take her own advice and is in fact tiptoeing around the open affair her husband is having with her understudy. She is, however, the most fearless of all the characters in Heights. She is as sassy as Mrs. Robinson and as layered as the Lady Macbeth she plays on stage. And, with Glenn Close in a role like this, you're almost begging for some over the top theatrics. But Close delights, instead, by grounding this potential caricature and pulls off a riveting and realistic performance.
This is in contrast to Elizabeth Banks, whose portrayal of Diana's daughter, Isabel, is dry, simplistic and not half as artful as the performances seen in Closer. One critic compared this film about modern relationships to Mike Nichols'unforgiving drama about the same thing. Heights, however, suffers, with a couple of wimpy characters who don't pull their weight. The problem isn't so much Banks, as it is the script. The character Isabel is a little bit too written. She is the stereotype of a young, New York, professional: a photographer who graduated from Yale, smokes, but is trying to quit, cohabitates with a young lawyer fiancée (James Marsden) in a Manhattan apartment, dreams of shooting for the Times, has an actress for a mother and is having second thoughts about her Manhattan wedding. It's all very New York and looks like fertile ground for character development but, as it turns out, it's all very uninspired.
If the film smacks of its stage play routes anywhere, it's in its representation of Isabel, not in the thick stage references in Close's scenes. Isabel is a walking character description who only needs to glance in the mirror to remind herself of what a wicked bore she is supposed to be. Banks can play insipid to perfection, but one wonders if someone else might have added a little more nuance and life to the cardboard cut-out writer Amy Fox and director Chris Terrio shafted her with. Also, why should we care about such an empty navel-gazing soul? The same goes for John Light's character, the journalist who keeps pestering Marsden and Banks about skeletons, and other things, in the closet.
Yes - about half-way through "Heights," it becomes clear that resolutions to the interweaving plots are all going to focus on Isabel and her fiancée, which is a disappointing turn of events because that particular character is so lackluster. I would've preferred it if the spotlight fell more on the enigmatic Jesse Bradford, the pitch perfect Isabella Rossellini or Glenn Close. The only thing about Banks's performance that really shines is her hair. Prettiness simply doesn't cut it, though. Not in this film, which is trying to be the opposite of superficial. "Heights" is a good effort, but the best thing about the film might be the shots of New York City, which are gritty and gorgeous as always.
Official Site: http://www.sonyclassics.com/heights/
Copyright (c) 2005 by Lauren Simpson
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