By Michael Koresky
Dir. Chris Terrio, U.S.. Sony Pictures Classics
I was going to
let it go. Let it be merely a blip on the indie
film radar, write it off as just another of those
do-hickeys. I had almost forgotten I had seen
Heights, yet as elusively cockroach-like
as it may be, the film remained stuck (and calcified)
in my craw, its unfortunate memory exacerbated
by the surprising acclaim (or perhaps humdrum
acquiescence) it received upon its eventual release.
Of course I shouldn’t have been shocked, coming
as the film does from such pedigree: a literate
New York theaterderived ensemble, the name Ismail
Merchant credited as producer, a flattering setting
of higher- echelon Manhattan real estate, etc.
Yet to see so specious a film accepted, even lauded,
was too much to ignore. Understandably, so soon
after Merchant’s untimely death, one wouldn’t
want to too harshly condemn his first posthumous
released work, yet Heights so thoroughly
demonstrates almost everything wrong with contemporary
movie melodrama that one wouldn’t want it to be
included in Merchant’s legacy.
Not a week goes by in which some willfully urbane “treatise” on the “stifling” nature of “modern relationships” isn’t forced upon us. Yet what films like Don Roos’s telegraphed and smirking Happy Endings, to a lesser extent Miranda July’s upside-down patchwork smile Me and You and Everyone We Know, and the worst offender of them all, Chris Terrio’s Heightssimply do is reinforce cultural differences, both sanctifying and making slightly grotesque their outsider characters through objectifying narrative tricks and ploys. Happy Endings lays out its cards (literally) with a series of title cards explicating that its characters are merely the screenwriter’s unwitting playthings, and then in a half-assed move right out of the Opposite of Sex playbook, he begs for the viewer’s heart back. Miranda July tries to mix together performance-art gambits and some by-the-numbers commentary on our modern condition’s “inability to connect” into a fairly lopsided pudding; charming as it often is, watch the opening burning-hand sketch and ask yourself if July is perhaps too conceptual to devise consistent character arcs and human studies without falling back on flagrant gallery quirks. Finally, first-timer Chris Terrio’s Heights, directed with an assuredness that seems downright pompous and based on a small play by Amy Fox, who also adapted the script with help from Terrio, surveys a cross-section of interconnected New Yorkers over a 24 hour period with such grandiose, cynical, plot-twistings and wrenchings that in the end we feel like we haven’t seen actual characters interact as much as witnessed some cruel cosmic joke. With its deliberate withholdings of information, inelegant back-and-forth editing, and needlessly mysterious personae, Heightssuccessfully makes its characters into utter ciphers simply waiting for some big reveal.
Especially disturbing about Heights’ coy jigsaw construction is that the ultimate moment of revelation (a lip-lock that unveils the two primary male cast members, and apparent opposites, James Marsden’s porcelain-cheekboned closeted groom-to-be and Jesse Bradford’s goateed out-of-work actor schlub, as engaged in a love affair) is meant to be treated with awe and perhaps even a few gasps. It’s illustrative of an unfortunate side effect of these more agenda-driven films: When characters merely represent some sort of forced contemporary aggrandizement (as if these issues haven’t always existed in one way or another), we are treated to watch them as though specimen multiplying under a magnifying glass, typified by DP Jim Denault’s many establishing shots of imposing Manhattan building facades dwarfing the city’s inhabitants. The “is he or isn’t he?” game is especially suspect in a film that so greatly makes claims to its own generation’s progressiveness; its final secret roof tryst could hardly be more conservatively stated, replete with horrified on-looking fiancée.
The horrific monotone of dreadful “up-and-comer” Elizabeth Banks is perhaps the perfect embodiment of Heights’ deadened sensibilities. As Isabel, soon to be married to Marsden’s closet-case lawyer, Banks delivers all her lines in a half-bemused lobotomized whine, yet since every good melodrama needs a weepy heroine, she becomes the film’s hollow center. Glenn Close, whose face, stretched taut with touch-ups, looks alarmingly like a Michael Myers death mask, lends wild-eyed, arm-flailing support as Isabel’s drama-queen theater star mother, but despite her billing, the film devises Isabel’s humiliation as its center attraction. Terrio and Fox so mistrust traditional melodrama narrative structure that they upend the whole film; Heights’ “surprises” preclude emotional identification. Its attempt to redefine “modern” relationships is more than just disingenuous—it predisposes viewers to thinking that its characters have some sort of cultural or social claims on these particular issues of sexuality. We’re left with a social parable of mind-boggling reductiveness.