Director: Chris Terrio
Writer: Amy Fox
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Glenn Close, Jesse Bradford
Heights is based on a one-act play of the same title and the same author, Amy Fox. The movie is an example of when adaptation goes good, because Fox has taken the characters from her play, and greatly expanded the plot. The rooftop scene that comprises the entire play, ends up in one scene of the movie. With this as the basis for the screenplay, there is enough story to sustain the two hour structure.
The plot is a hard one to summarize, but I’ll attempt. Diana (Close) is both a famous stage actor and mother to Isabel (Banks). Diana silently disapproves of Isabel’s marriage to Jonathan (Marsden). Diana is also in the middle of directing a new play, and auditions Alec (Bradford), an actor who peaks her interest both on and off the stage. The relationship permutations between these four are toyed with, and the arrival of a reporter doing an article on a famous photographer brings secrets that throw a wrench into Jonathan and Isabel’s wedding plans.
Thematically the play and film play with the idea of the fragility of love. Both Diana and Isabel are drawn to men in their lives that cannot commit to them. They are also both apt to settle for what is comfortable rather than what is best. The men are painted in a light of desperation, both in their jobs (Alec’s acting career, Jonathan’s stress as a small fish in a big corporation), and in their relationships. In this sense, the movie is very theatrical. The movie is divided into clean-cut chapters as the characters are introduced, and as they intertwine.
Visually the movie is stunning. Terrio creates an incredible New York environment where the characters are meant to feel crushed by their surroundings. Shots of a phone conversation take place from the vantage point of the entire building, with a character peering out from his miniscule office window. There is also a beautiful scene in Central Park where Isabel and Jonathan wander between hundreds of chairs after a reception.
The acting is remarkable. This was one of Banks’ first standout performances that sent her spiraling into the busy career she has built. She is subtle and strong as Isabel, a woman who is torn by a pressure to either build her career or submit herself to marriage. James Marsden had been Cyclops, but proves he is much more than an X-Man in Heights, playing a meaty role of a stressed out city lawyer with something to hide. Jesse Bradford, who was in Swimfan, returns as an actor working for a catering business. And finally Glenn Close. There is something I appreciate about older veteran actors returning to smaller films to play with the kids (see: Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream). It is clear that she knows what she is doing from the first scene, as she instructs an acting class at Juliard, screaming at actors who exchange a sword in Hamlet for a gun. Diana’s husband is cheating on her with a younger actress, and her daughter Isabel is growing distant. I have to mention that her drunk acting is great.
One of my favorite elements of the movie is the metatheatricality of Diana’s character playing Lady Macbeth throughout the movie. The production in the film is stunning, and the DVD features comment on how they realized the fake “Macbeth” by hiring real Broadway set and costume designers. There are also moments in the film that underline Diana’s omnipresence to each of the characters, as advertisements for the play appear featuring her face looking to the sky. Anywhere from a billboard in the background of a scene, to a bus pulling up with the ad on the side.
MAKE – What makes the film is the acting. The actors are given a real writer who has adapted her own play into something greater and more substantial. I’ve read both, and it seems to me that Fox had characters in mind, but the one-act medium only allowed her to expand them to a certain point. Now she can give that background in real time, which results in great acting opportunities for the talented ensemble.
BREAK – What could break the movie is the pacing. It’s a bit too long, and at some point the ending becomes predictable. This is forgivable, as the ending isn’t what makes the film, but they belabor the point a bit beyond the climax.
BOTTOM LINE – It’s an artsy movie with excellent acting. Fox’s tense and dramatic script was given to the right director, who created an interesting and consistent atmosphere. Throw in an all-star cast and it’s hard to go wrong.