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City Strife 

At the beginning of director Chris Terrio's Heights, a famous actress interrupts a master class on Macbeth to chide the student actors for having employed a pistol as a prop. At first, we think she's going to launch into a rant about the kind of modernizing that Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo + Juliet, but pretty soon she segues into praising Shakespeare for the depth of feeling his plays communicate while condemning contemporary society for its paucity of passion. She closes her little self-dramatizing harangue by urging all in attendance to "go out this weekend and take a risk." Much that's interesting and artistically commendable follows this opening, but its command rings without resonance, for we get nothing risky and little that will stir us long to recall this film's events.

Adapted for the screen by Amy Fox from her stageplay, Heights is the story of a half-dozen interacting New Yorkers on a long day that will redirect the lives of several. The Oscar-winning actress is Diana Lee (Glenn Close playing diva with a capital D). A theatrical powerhouse, Diana is currently (in addition to her teaching) in rehearsals for her Broadway role as Lady Macbeth and beginning rehearsals as director of an off-Broadway production. In this latter capacity she meets an auditioning actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford), and she brazenly starts hitting on him as a kind of power trip we normally associate with Hollywood producers and television evangelists. Diana probably hasn't much inclination toward actual sex with Alec, but he might prove a nice counterbalance to her understudy Amanda (Regina McMahon) who is forever slipping away to "run lines" with Diana's husband and co-star Michael (Jonathan Walker), with whom Diana has an "arrangement" that allows them to make each other miserable whenever they can manage.

Alec, it turns out, lives in the same building as Diana's daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, who will remind indie moviegoers immensely of Posey Parker), though he claims not to know her. Isabel is a talented photographer who supports her art work by shooting weddings for a portrait studio. She is engaged to preppy lawyer Jonathan Kessler (James Marsden), who worked his way through law school as a photographer's model. Isabel and Jonathan pretend to be happier than we can tell they are. And nobody wants them to marry. Jonathan's mother insists they visit a rabbi for counsel about interfaith marriage, and the comical Rabbi Mendel (George Segal) pesters them with a series of questions obviously designed to stimulate them to come to their senses and break up before it's too late. Diana, meanwhile, repeatedly protests how fond she is of Jonathan while wondering aloud to her daughter if Isabel is old enough to really know what she wants. Though we're supposed to identify with daughter rather than mother, and though Isabel is certainly plenty old enough to make decisions for herself, Mom has a keener sense of the truth than even she understands.

A big revelation lurks at the end of this movie to sort out some of its character complications, though it's a secret many viewers will guess less than halfway through. Regrettably, the revelation raises far more questions than it answers. Diana and Michael may have jumped into their own toxic pool for reasons of separation, divergent personal ambition, soaring ego and boredom, but Isabel and Jonathan don't yet have any of those excuses. When we meet Isabel's former boyfriend Mark (Matthew Davis), we understand from a quick autopsy she performs on his personality why she's moved on. But we never get a handle on why, save solely for the fact that he's a hunk, she's so devoted to Jonathan, who seems manipulative, deceitful and never terribly nice to her. Ultimately we understand why Jonathan is so irritable around Isabel, but then we don't understand what he's doing with her or even what he thinks he's doing with her in the first place.

These significant criticisms notwithstanding, I never gave up on this movie, never found myself checking my watch to discover when it would finally end. The acting accounts for a lot of the film's appeal. Banks doesn't have the material to tell us things we want to know, but she renders Isabel a compelling character -- decent, curious, intelligent, responsible and caring. We identify with the dilemma she faces when she's offered her dream photojournalist job at the very season she needs to be preparing for her wedding. Meanwhile, in a performance that recalls Patricia Clarkson's Oscar-nominated turn in Pieces of April, Close's Diana is a force of nature, a Category 5 storm of a human being who sweeps away all in her path and nonetheless maintains a genuine maternal eye at her center. Like Othello, she may not love wisely, but she loves well.

But hold my attention though it indisputably did, this film never got inside me. Its characters stimulate and intrigue but they never quite affect.

click to enlarge Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) struggles to figure out where - both her career and her relationship are going in Chris - Terrio's ensemble drama,  Heights. - WALTER THOMPSON/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Walter Thompson/Sony Pictures Classics
  • Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) struggles to figure out where both her career and her relationship are going in Chris Terrio's ensemble drama, Heights.
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