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Heights (10/10)

by Tony Medley

This is the kind of movie that comes along only occasionally. Like “All About Eve,” (1950) it’s mostly talk and character development. Although it’s an ensemble cast of actors who haven’t come within whistling distance of the A-List, the story revolves around Isabel (a stunning Elizabeth Banks).

We meet and follow five characters involved in the New York arts scene over 24 hours on a fall day. Isabel is a photographer engaged to marry Jonathan (James Marsden), an attorney with other things on his mind. Isabel’s mother, Diana (Glenn Close) is an actress and teacher with a philandering husband which bothers her even though she has an open marriage. Alec (Jesse Bradford) is a neighbor of Isabel and Jonathan and an actor trying out for a spot in a play with Diana. Peter (John Light) is a journalist for Vanity Fair doing a story on a famous homo- or bi-sexual model, Benjamin, a person we never meet.

Isabel is the central figure of this tale. She is not only engaged to Jonathan, but is pursued by an old flame, Mark (Matt Davis), a writer for The New York Times. They need a photographer and Mark wants it to be Elizabeth, not so much because she’s a great photographer, but so he can reestablish their relationship.

Shot entirely in New York City, rather than today’s preferred location of Toronto, this is as atmospheric a film as previous Merchant Ivory productions. “New York is a character in this film,” says Director Chris Terrio. “Even in a movie that’s basically about interpersonal relationships, you can’t help but acknowledge the presence of larger forces outside, in the city.”

The brilliant script (Amy Fox, based on her 30-minute play) contains some terrific lines. For example:

After Isabel turns down Mark’s employer’s offer to go on a story trip because of her impending marriage, she and Mark are on a rooftop and Mark is continuing his pursuit, trying to convince her to take the job. Isabel replies, “Have you ever had a wedding? There’s planning. There’s string quartets.”

When Mark perseveres, she chides him, “Mark, You’re a child. In 20 years you’ll still be smoking pot on rooftops with girls you don’t know how to love.”

When Jonathan tells Isabel that maybe the New York Times needed her, she responds, “They don’t really want me; I’m nobody.”

Earlier, Alec asks Diana about somebody and Diana replies, “He’s nobody, just the writer.”

There’s a wonderfully crafted scene in a cab between Isabel and Jonathan that starts out lovingly and ends with her angrily charging out of the cab, leaving him alone.

When Isabel meets Ian (Andrew Howard), he asks her, “What’s your scene?”

This is a great cast that includes cameos by my grammar school classmate, Michael Murphy, who plays Mark’s editor, George Segal, who plays Rabbi Mendel, and Isabella Rossellini.

Terrio had worked as James Ivory’s assistant and directed various small projects when the company tabbed him to develop a script with Fox. Terrio based his work on the works of one of his mentors, New York playwright Edward Albee, like “A Delicate Balance,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Glenn Close was allowed to develop her character far beyond what was written in the script. “A lot of the small bits of improvisation in the movie are Glenn’s own, and there are entire scenes that are based on ideas Glenn had in rehearsal,” says Terrio. Elizabeth Banks was given the same freedom with her character, Isabel.

The film starts off relatively light-hearted, almost like it’s going to be a romantic comedy. But as it proceeds, it gets progressively darker as we learn more about the characters and they learn more about each other. This is a penetrating reflection of present day life of young, post-9/11, post-college New Yorkers’ world of the arts.  There is a lot of male homosexuality and some shots of males kissing males on the lips, something I don’t find entertaining to watch.

Even so, this is a terrific movie, a convincing story of how many intertwined lives can change throughout the course of a day.

May 12, 2005