Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 05, 2005 11:37 am 
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A failure of pretense

Published by CineScene.

The friend with whom I watched Heights concluded it was "interesting" and I had to agree. We were equally bored by it. Isn't being patiently bored what "interesting" means, nowadays?

Heights fails to live up to any of its pretenses. It's supposedly made up of "interwoven stories," but any resemblance to such ambitious and challenging works as Short Cuts, Magnolia, or the recent Crash is minimal. Hardly anybody comes into the "interweaving" accidentally or unexpectedly here. The main characters are a famous actress and acting teacher, her photographer daughter, the daughter's fiancé, various young hopefuls, friends, associates and neighbors, and a notorious gay British photographer (never seen) whose latest lover has been sent to America to interview many of his attractive male subjects, most of whom posed in the nude and were his bedmates. This threatens to pull some skeletons out of distinctly fake-straight closets.

But nobody comes in out of the park, and the movie's hints that it might somehow relate to Fred Schipesi's sparkling, breathlessly suspenseful filming of John Guare's play are a serious mistake. There's some unfortunate talk about how the "six degrees of separation" are really just "two" in New York. This merely means there are only so many calls for actors, and that when somebody sleeps around a lot people are going to run into other people who've slept with the same person. The coincidence Glenn Close's character notices turns out not to be one. People in the same apartment building tend to run into each other too. I guess that's no degrees of separation, if the walls are thin enough.

This is a "sophisticated love round" in which there's no lovemaking, not much love, and not a whole lot of sophistication. It's a story with a "surprise ending" that's clearly foreshadowed in the first fifteen minutes and successively hinted at all the way through. One of the characters is relieved when it comes, and so are we, because it means the movie's over.

Heights is a "little inde" picture that stars Glenn Close and has the likes of George Segal, Eric Bogosian and Isabella Rossellini in supporting roles as well as a bevy of attractive younger actors with excellent résumés, including two particularly cute young men whose secret affairs are part of the finale. Though it has various grundgy apartments it's an expensive-looking production with elaborate crowd scenes, the star's flashy pad, some nice office spaces, and glam shots of New York at night. These are the "heights," which take us up to the roofs for some glittering panoramic views. The movie doesn't live up to its implication of smallness or edginess, and has an "inde" plot only in the negative sense of lacking mainstream energy. It wanders around like a stranger at a cocktail party and then gets tired and sits down.

Heights has plenty of good-looking people in it and is "watchable" -- which is about on a level with "interesting." Glenn Close is dynamic and elegant, but still wasted -- and not stretched, except insofar as it's hard for an actor to play himself -- as a "famous" actress with Oscars on her shelf who teaches acting and is giving classes in Macbeth at Julliard at the same time she's preparing to play Lady Macbeth on Broadway. That keeps the references simple, and a lot of her punch lines are just Shakespearean tags, but the dual-Macbeth situation is a pretty far-fetched kind of overlapping and the tag lines, even delivered by someone as good as Close, are obtrusive and wince-inducing.

The "interweaving" is completely obvious, save for one guy unacquainted with anybody but Diana (Close), who's collecting attractive young men to get back at her blatantly unfaithful director husband. He's Welsh, this new face -- which signals major degrees of separation. Glenn Close's daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) is impressed that he had the courage to cross the ocean without knowing anybody. He has some sprightly lines and then gets rushed off to the hospital. I won't reveal any more, because this little film trades much on its wan surprises. The way the Welsh guy's name is revealed is cute.

The two main guys, Jonathan (James Marsden) and Alec (Jesse Bradford), have charm as well as sex appeal. Ms. Banks is convincing as a young woman with shut-down feelings. Is she really acting, though, or just going around with a stiff neck? Most of the time the young people exhibit the same dysfunctional lack of affect that Diana bewails in the actors reading Macbeth at her Julliard class. This is like "Fame" without the energy. The cast seems fine, but they have nothing much to do but look busy -- or stiff-necked, and no amount of charm or sex appeal can save this limp plot.

This is the last movie the late Ismael Merchant produced. Too bad he didn't go out with something of the quality of A Room with a View or The Remains of the Day. But the fact is, Merchant/Ivory have been behind a lot of genteel mediocrities, including disasters like the recent Le Divorce, for which director Chris Terrio, who's been on the team for some years, was assigned to do the "electronic press kit." I guess this movie is a step up from that job, but it's not as far up as the title would suggest.

©Chris Knipp 2005

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