Such great ‘Heights’

Andrew Hampp

Glenn Close and Elizabeth Banks have a moment to themselves in Heights.

Credit: Beth Rankin


Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Glenn Close, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, Thomas Lennon, Matthew Davis, Isabella Rossellini

Directed by: Chris Terrio

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Rated: R for language, brief sexuality and nudity

Stater rating (out of four):

★ ★★ 1/2

Every year, several movies are set in or devoted to the much-filmed metropolis that is New York City. Within the last year alone, the Big Apple has been the centerpiece of romantic comedies like Hitch and Melinda and Melinda.

But a rarity among this ever-growing crop of films based around The City That Never Sleeps is a film that manages to both pay loving tribute to Manhattan yet tell a compelling story at the same time. Until now, only filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese could successfully pull off this difficult feat, but now upstart director Chris Terrio’s name can be added to the list of great New York filmmakers, based solely on the merits of his debut feature, Heights.

With pivotal scenes set against the New York City skyline from the tops of 50-story apartment buildings, Heights lives up to its name in more ways than one. Although the movie revolves around four main characters, the city could easily be counted as the fifth major player, to paraphrase an extremely overused expression.

Each of the film’s four story arcs comes back to Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a young photographer with a famous actress mother Diana (Glenn Close) on the brink of divorce, and her fiancée, Jonathan (James Marsden), a lawyer with a secret.

By the end of the 24-hour period during which the events of Heights unfold, Isabel loses a job, reconnects with her distant, distraught mother and makes a major discovery about her husband-to-be’s personal life.

As the characters’ moods and states of being fluctuate, the cinematography subtly adapts to the new surroundings with different tones and colors to set the scene. Cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don’t Cry, Maria Full of Grace) imbues hints of blue during the movie’s emotionally charged moments and adds a tint of green during flirtatious scenes, such as an exchange between a Vanity Fair reporter (John Light) and a flamboyant scenester played to hilarious effect by folk singer Rufus Wainwright.

Most colorful of all, however, is Elizabeth Banks, whose understated turn as Isabel is Heights’ strongest asset. Mostly known, for her supporting roles in films from the Spider-Man series or Seabiscuit, Banks is finally up front and center here and has no problems holding her own against Close and Marsden especially during a particularly heated confrontation near the end. Although Terrio could have done better to devote even more screen time to Banks’ showcased character, she more than makes the most of her meaty role.

Marsden also impresses as the emotionally confused Jonathan, whose long-harbored secret plagues him so much he turns to his rabbi (George Segal) at one point for advice. Proving there is more to his acting abilities than the shoddy ones on display in the X-Men franchise, Marsden excels at humanizing a conflicted character many people would otherwise deem despicable.

As for Glenn Close, the grande dame of overacting (see Fatal Attraction and 101 Dalmatians again before you disagree), wisely turns the theatrics down a few notches to play the fabulous, Shakespeare-quoting Diana Lee at a respectable, human level. Even during a scene in which her character rehearses as Lady Macbeth, Close shows little trace of the over-emoting she’s employed in everything from similar theatrical turns in her adaptations of Dangerous Liaisons and The Lion in Winter, making her a flip-out-free delight to watch on-screen.

When a director can even get Close to play it low-key, you know the movie is going to pack a subtle, powerful punch, and that’s exactly what Heights does. It’s a deft blend of pleasant cinematography, strong acting and a modern story line with timeless overtones, but it has no moment that could be considered an overall “highlight” (although a party scene in which a character suggests casting Lynne Cheney, Laura Bush and Condi Rice as the three witches in Macbeth comes awfully close).

Instead, Heights is so consistently good it needs no individual moments to help it stand as an exceptional film, and one of the most unexpectedly good movies of the year.

Contact Pop Arts editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].