On leaving “Heights,” debut filmmaker Chris Terrio’s tale of the interconnections that emerge among a half-dozen or so characters in Manhattan over the course of a single day, you might be moved to think, “There are six stories in the Naked City, and they all boil down to just one,” and muse that the level of coincidence driving the narrative is as high as the Big Apple’s tallest skyscrapers. But while the script, which shows its origins in a stage piece (a venue where such convenient linkages are less problematic), has a distinctly artificial feel, the cast is strong enough to help the movie transcend the structural weaknesses and become reasonably engaging.
The picture starts with Alec (Jesse Bradford), a struggling actor, preparing to audition for a role in a play with Broadway diva Diana (Glenn Close), only to find himself performing before the celebrated lady herself. She takes a shine to him and invites him to a party (we later learn that her husband is engaged in an affair with a much younger actress, and so her interest is undoubtedly more than merely professional), but he seems curiously reluctant to accept the invitation, despite the obvious benefits it could bring to his career. Alec, it turns out, has an apartment in the same building as Diana’s daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a photographer, and her husband-to-be, lawyer Jonathan (James Marsden). But the girl is clearly suffering some pre-nuptial jitters, especially after she receives a nearly-irresistible job offer that would take her abroad on assignment for The Times just when the ceremony is scheduled. At the same time Jonathan is unnerved by calls from Peter (John Light), a British writer assigned to do a Vanity Fair piece on a photographer whose nudes of young men are soon to be displayed in a big exhibition (and who’s notorious for having slept with his models). Matters will be further complicated when Isabel meets a free-spirited Australian artist named Ian (Andrew Howard) at her mother’s birthday party.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal how the links among these characters work themselves out; it’s not a violation, however, to say there’s a big twist at the close which does tie things up, though in a way that seems to come out of a writing student’s playbook rather than real life. Still, though the contrivances may be hard to swallow, the performances are very easy to take, even under Terrio’s sometimes prosaic direction. Close leads the way with a commanding turn that captures both the star’s high wattage and her underlying insecurity, and Bradford complements her nicely by wearing his unsureness on his sleeve, as it were. Though Light can’t make much of a part that really isn’t much more developed than that of the investigator in “Citizen Kane” (though at least he’s not relegated to the shadows), Banks conveys the shadings of Isabel’s personality nicely, while Marsden, with his craggy good looks, moves easily from smooth self-confidence to sweating desperation and Howard has no difficulty embodying Ian’s rather juvenile exuberance. There are also some enjoyable supporting turns, particularly from Eric Bogosian as Diana’s long-time director and George Segal as the good-natured rabbi scheduled to officiate at Isabel and Jonathan’s ceremony but uncertain about how to offer advice to a “mixed” couple. The film is also pretty good in fashioning a sense of place, with Jim Denault’s cinematography capturing not only a strong New York feel but the rarefied atmosphere of the insular artistic community, too. (The name dropping can get a bit much, though–as with The Times and Vanity Fair.)
Its structural flaws keep “Heights” from actually reaching them, but thanks to solid contributions from the cast and crew at least it doesn’t collapse along the way to its all-too-neat conclusion.