What "Short Cuts" did with struggling lower-to-middle-class Californians, "Heights" does with upscale New Yorkers—using an ensemble cast to explore the ways that lives, even in a big city, can intertwine in a real small-world sort of way. And in both Robert Altman's film, which was based on Raymond Carver short stories, and Chris Terrio's, which was adapted from Amy Fox's stage play by the same name, the coincidence-heavy structure is more of an excuse to tell each character's story in context, rather than an attempt to say something profound about interconnectedness.
In "Heights," Glenn Close is positively in her element as Diana, a stage-and-screen star who has reached the pinnacle of her show business career and is teaching a Master class at Julliard to a "sold-out" class that basks in her passion for acting and applauds every lecture. Pretension is a part of her world, so a good portion of her passion is channeled into maintaining an attitude that hovers somewhere between a veteran's jadedness and sagely ennui. In Roman mythology, Diana was the daughter of Jupiter and the goddess of many things pertaining to womanhood, including childbirth, and a mother-figure to young people—which Close's character is in the film. But Diana was also a virgin and a symbol of chastity, which makes Fox's Diana an ironic one. Diana the Diva is perpetually on the make, and one guesses she's not above using her position in ways that are akin to the fabled director's couch. Thankfully, Close plays her character with great subtlety, so that this aspect of personality never seems Golden Girl pathetic or desperate. She comes across as a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood person who, despite reaching the heights to which others in the film can only aspire, seems as genuinely lost and still searching as the rest.
Diana is drawn to a young man we suspect is just the most recent among her attractions, a struggling actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford) who just happens to live in the same building as her daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth Banks). Isabel, meanwhile, is a passionate photographer who aspires to reach the heights of that profession, though she's also living with Jonathan (James Marsden), an attorney with a past that threatens their impending marriage much more than the fact that one of them is Jewish and the other isn't. The counterpoint to Diana's social-oriented celebrity is the reclusive notoriety of another photographer, Benjamin, who is depicted through the testimony of ex-lovers. Peter (John Light) is a journalist who lives with Benjamin but has been assigned the unenviable task of interviewing his current lover's ex's in order to advance his own career. Perhaps just as unenviable is the task of the Rabbi assigned to counsel Isabel and Jonathan, who are prone to make fun of the process. But George Segal is perfect as the religious teacher with just the right tone, and "just the right tone" pretty much applies to the rest of the portrayals.
The action takes place over a single 24-hour period, with scenes that focus on Diana, Isabel and Jonathan, Isabel and Mark (an old flame played by Matthew Davis), Peter and Benjamin, Alec and Diana, and Ian (Andrew Howard), with two events that draw people together: a wedding and a party at Diana's. Terrio's directing and editing skills are considerable, for a scenario of interconnected lives on the brink of either disaster or success could easily have resulted in melodrama of the soapiest sort. But Fox's screenplay brims with intelligent writing, both in dialogue and in situations, and Terrio's perfect sense of pacing and handling of the material has us feeling a sense of precariousness throughout—as if any character at any moment could fall from success or catch a big break.
The symbolism of "Heights," which was filmed in New York City and Brant Park, Manhattan, is reinforced throughout the picture with Terrio's liberal use of rooftop scenes and up-angle shots of characters who have "made it," as well as more oblique shots of, for example, a fire escape. Shot from below, it looks like an entanglement, a formidable ascent than the functionally simple escape route on the way down.
Video: The picture quality is quite good, with "Heights" mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. Even the frequent night cityscapes shimmer with precision rather than blurring like time-lapse photography or heat rising from steamy car hoods.
Audio: The sound is also excellent, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that has a natural, robust quality. Subtitles are in French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Extras: Like the old pro she is, Close joins Terrio for a full-length commentary that treats each scene with a focus not as much on anecdotes as on getting the shot right. It's a pretty precise but matter-of-fact commentary track that's more business than pleasure—though fans of the film, film students, and those who appreciate Close's talents will find the commentary engaging enough. In addition to the obligatory photo gallery, there are also two very short features: "Shooting New York: Locations Summary" and "The Scottish Play: Designing Broadway for Film." Both are nice to have, but, when all is said and done, not so illuminating as to make them indispensable. Call them average.
Bottom Line: Like so many ensemble films that tackle coincidentally intertwined lives, "Heights" manages to sustain our interest because of the structure which promises to lead us, eventually, to a point of connection. But you'll have to search the symbols for meaning and a sense of closure, because this 24-hour slice-of-life drama doesn't follow a standard narrative structure of rising action, climax, and falling action. If it holds wisdom, it's the wisdom of small moments in characters' lives. Not that much really happens, in retrospect. There's a great deal of talking and a lot of quiet moments. But it's easy to see why "Heights" appealed to Ismail Merchant, who produced the film with Richard Hawley. Merchant spent his career making films that showed us the importance of such small moments.