Judge Joel Pearce thinks everything looks perfect from far away.
"Actors, painters, we're all the same: super-conscious of everyone else, their work. But you sleepwalk through your own life. You're not really noticing, or interested, in anyone."—Ian
Character-driven films adapted from stage plays about stage actors are a strange viewing experience for me. I always want to like them, because they attract great performers and have intelligent, literate scripts. I generally feel dissatisfied by them though, and Heights is no different. It is a fascinating tale of dirty secrets and intertwining lives that shoots itself in the foot by including too many secrets and too closely intertwining lives.
Facts of the Case
Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, The 40 Year Old Virgin) and Jonathan (James Marsden, X-Men) are going to be married in a few weeks. They are in love, but there are secrets between them.
Isabel's mother is world famous actress Diana Lee (Glenn Close, Hamlet) who is performing Lady Macbeth in a New York stage production. She is also casting for a new play, and sees Alec (Jesse Bradford, Swimfan) audition for a role. He intrigues her, though he clearly wants nothing to do with her. She, in turn, is struggling with her husband's own infidelities.
Meanwhile, British reporter Peter (John Light) is in town to write a story on infamous nude photographer Benjamin Stone. He has a number of interviews to conduct, some of which will bring him closer to the other characters than they want.
Over the next 24 hours, all of their lives will connect in meaningful and surprising ways.
Early on in the film, Diana claims that New York is the smallest city in the world because everyone is so closely connected. Well, filmmakers must believe that, because it is the site of so many movies of this ilk. Even though few of the characters know each other at the beginning, they all realize as the film continues that their lives have deeply affected each other. This attempt seems sincere and well-intentioned, but Heights feels horribly bogged down and artificial by the end.
After all, the success of stage play adaptations counts on believable scripting and good acting to impress the viewers. There are no special effects here, no complex and long-running stories to tell. Fortunately, the acting is uniformly impressive. Glenn Close delivers a nuanced and controlled performance as Diana, never overshadowing the more intimate and personal performances of Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, and Jesse Bradford. Each of these characters are deeply flawed and well written, and we quickly settle into the idea that they have known each other for a long time. The smaller roles are awesome as well, with some familiar faces who are there to add depth to the film, rather than to call attention to themselves.
The result of the performances is a film that I really wanted to let myself get lost in, but I was distracted by wave after wave of coincidences. Especially toward the end, these coincidences and connections between the characters become almost comical. Alec disappears for half of the running time (not unlike Macduff), only to play an important role in the film's conclusion. There are also some moments of pretension that get in the way. Although the cinematography generally stays out of the way of the performers (in a stylish way), the intertitles introducing the characters seem a bit contrived.
As well, alternative sexuality is starting to feel like the new multiculturalism in films. Now, I have no problems with gay characters in films, just as I like characters from a wide range of backgrounds, but in Heights it feels more like a fad than a serious attempt at handling issues of sexuality. Ten years ago, the cast of a film set in New York would certainly contain a number of conspicuously multicultural characters, in hopes of showing how tolerant and hip the creators were. Here, it feels like director Chris Terrio has done the same thing with homosexuality. My wish is that characters from minority groups could be included in films more often without the fanfare and preaching. Isn't that the best way to show tolerance? Especially in a film that focuses, at its core, on the fact that secrets and lies can erode any kind of relationship, even if both partners have agreed that they will accept secrets kept from each other. This is a universal concept that most of us can relate to, and its use of hot issues to press the point only serves to trap it in this moment of time. Heights calls a lot on the language and memory of Shakespeare, whose work has managed to stay fresh for over 400 years. In ten years from now, it will already feel old and out of date.
The DVD has been well produced. The video transfer is attractive and sharp, with clear details and no visible flaws. The color saturation is appropriate, and the (overused) cityscape shots of New York look great during day and night. The sound isn't quite as good, despite a pleasantly wide and subtle Dolby 5.1 sound stage. The voices get lost in the mix sometimes, and I found myself straining to hear a few of the conversations. There are few extras on the disc. A commentary track featuring Chris Terrio and Glenn Close headlines the bonus content. Terrio takes the majority of the time, providing a number of details about the production and filming. A location diary allows Terrio to take us through the various New York locations from the shoot. A featurette shows us the creation of the Broadway version of Macbeth that Diana starred in. A photo gallery rounds out the extras, featuring the photographs that play such an important role in the film.
I know there are people who love movies like Heights, but they frustrate me, even though I want to like them. If you like this sort of film, I can recommend it warmly. It does have a number of odd coincidences, but it also has exceptional performances. If plot contrivances bore or distract you, this is a film you will probably want to pass up.
Although it's found not guilty on most charges, Heights is found guilty of wasting great acting talent with a disappointing story.
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