In the movies, a lot can happen in a single day. A person can discover the meaning of life, shake hands with God, and still have time to pick up their dry cleaning. In Heights, the lives of five intertwined people are drastically altered in a 24 hour period. It’s the type of unlikely coincidence that never occurs in reality, but can often be overlooked and forgiven in movies.
New York City is populated by millions of people, but at any given moment you’re bound to run into someone you know, or more likely, someone who has seen you naked. Heights takes place in the bewildering city, exploring the lives of Manhattanites that just can’t seem to muster up the energy to smile. Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a promising photographer, declines dream job offers in order to plan her wedding to handsome but rigid attorney Jonathan (James Marsden). Something crucial is missing from their relationship, and her overbearing mother Diana (Glenn Close) tries incessantly to break them up, wounded from her own flailing marriage. Despite being an Oscar-winning legendary actress that can effortlessly command an audience’s attention, she can’t get her own husband to notice her, as his focus shifts to another actress.
A struggling, soulful, doe-eyed actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford), sporting a shiny green jacket, auditions for a play that Diana is directing in hopes of furthering his career. She unapologetically flings herself at him like a jumper from a ledge, but he quickly dismisses her advances due to complete lack of interest. Meanwhile, Peter (John Light) is writing an article for Vanity Fair about his playboy photographer boyfriend, who seems to have bedded the entire island of Manhattan, minus the females.
Based on a 30-minute play by screenwriter Amy Fox, Heights appropriately feels like a play itself, entirely dialogue driven and revolving around characterization. The common bond between all of characters is relentless misery, identity crisis, and the plight for something better. The tricky part is sympathizing with these rich, attractive, privileged people that mope around in prime soap opera fashion. They are all stuck in lives of quiet desperation that they have willingly created for themselves. Occasionally I felt like screaming, “Woe is me!” at the screen, but instead made this declaration with my socially acceptable 'inside voice'.
Essentially, all of the characters are actors, carrying out facades that they hope to persuade others into believing. The problem is that I never bought any of them myself. Jonathan is harboring a secret that is easily recognizable within the first third of the movie, and it gets tiresome waiting for everyone else to wake up and realize it. But the actors try their best to turn in good performances, and they do what they can with their limited material. Marsden delivers his best performance to date, showing that he has more than one facial expression; he has two. Close turns in another powerhouse performance in a movie undeserving of her efforts.
There is a great movie in here somewhere just waiting to burst out, but director Chris Terrio never fully tracks it down. It’s a shame too, because there are several moments of depth and humor buried beneath the pretense. Heights may not soar to its desired levels, but it’s riddled with beautiful people behaving badly. If you’re as shallow as the characters in the movie, that should be enough of a selling point.