Extolling the virtues of passion to her theater students while slamming contemporary urbanites as “tepid voyeurs…tap water,” Glenn Close’s acclaimed actress Diana may as well be speaking about her own (and her photographer daughter Isabel’s) unhappy life in post-9/11 Manhattan. Presumably in an open marriage, Diana nonetheless seethes with anger, humiliation, and hurt over her husband’s escalating relationship with her understudy, though like Isabel’s (Elizabeth Banks) plan to marry lawyer-with-a-secret Jonathan (James Marsden) despite their growing communication problems, Diana is resigned to endure her less-than-ideal situation with an outwardly cheery demeanor. Chris Terrio’s Heights pursues Diana, Isabel, and Jonathan—as well as an aspiring actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford) who catches Diana’s fancy at an audition, and Peter (John Light), a writer whose work on the memoir of a famous photographer involves tracking down that celebrity’s innumerable ex-lovers—as they’re forced to confront their fears and failings during 24 hours in the city that never sleeps.
A Merchant Ivory production that eschews the company’s trademark period piece formula by situating its story (expanded from Amy Fox’s 30-minute play) in modern-day New York, Terrio’s directorial debut is nominally concerned with the emotional alienation of the city’s inhabitants (and the stultifying insularity of Upper West Side society), but its finest moments involve acute perceptions about the sticky relationship between art and love. Steeped in a cloistered creative community of egomaniacal painters, writers, and thespians who boast little knowledge of, or interest in, the real world—at a party thrown by Diana, a movie industry idiot is overhead declaring that a project should opt for CGI over real-life animals because “Pixar is reality”—Heights subtly presents a handful of characters unwittingly obsessed with pretending (professionally, sexually, and psychologically) to be something they’re not. In ways both understated (a sidelong glance from Jonathan) and unsubtle (a third-act tongue-lashing Isabel receives from a partygoer), Terrio elucidates how Diana, Isabel, and Jonathan’s denial of basic truths is itself a form of performance, and it is unvarnished truth-telling that his film eventually advocates as the cathartic (and only viable) means of effectively coexisting with one’s self and others.
Fox’s writing makes up for its occasional obviousness (especially with regards to its portrait of closeted gay men) with a rigorous interest in character and general avoidance of long-winded homilies. Still, what primarily carries the film through its bumpy earnestness is its superb cast, which varies from the serviceable (Banks, Bradford) to the surprisingly nuanced and cliché-free (Marsden) to the phenomenal (Close). As the grand dame Diana, Close is imposing yet fragile, simultaneously conveying the regal force of personality that’s made her iconic actress a star while also delicately filling in the nooks and crannies around her character’s seemingly bedrock confidence with traces of doubt and disappointment. Highlighted by a sidewalk-set scene—involving Isabel bristling at her mother’s passive-aggressive comments about Jonathan’s spousal suitability—in which Close effortlessly flashes the full range of maternal emotions (love, fear, compassion, altruism, selfishness, protectiveness) in a series of lightening-quick, barely perceptible facial gestures, her masterful performance ultimately stands as this solidly acted ensemble’s apex.