First-time director Chris Terrio makes the Big Apple a noticeable character in the latest Merchant Ivory Production Heights which may appeal to those not turned off by Mike Nichols' Closer.
The main characters include Glenn Close (receiving plaudits for her small screen work in "The Shield"), Elizabeth Banks (Spider-Man 2), James Marsden (X2), and Jesse Bradford (Bring It On).
The narrative formula tracks the lives of these characters and others over a day as some paths converge and perhaps they may start anew as a new day finally dawns.
From Amy Fox's stage play, her screenplay, with additional help by Terrio, centers on Banks' Isabel, a wedding photographer planning her own wedding to Marsden's square lawyer Jonathan.
Close's Diana Lee is strongly connected to the New York theatre as a diva actress type who also auditions up-and-comers like Bradford's Alec who is intimated to say the least as he tries to get his big break. Diana can recite Shakespeare, especially Lady MacBeth, and ponders her open marriage with her husband who has taken a new lover. With her close ties to the theatre some may interpret Close's characterization as a parody of herself as someone who inspires passion in others, not just for on-stage performances.
Other characters connected to those around the theatre and arts are Peter, an underutilized John Light, who is commissioned a close photographer friend for Vanity Fair and Mark (Matt Davis) who tries to lure Isabel to a company doing a piece on post-Communist Eastern Europe. George Segal injects open-mindedness into a Rabbi who becomes a confidante to Jonathan and Eric Bogosian is good as a theatre director mindful of how to handle his charges.
Like Closer, the dialogue is used for cunning means as characters aren't always what they seem, even if the film's big surprise is deftly telegraphed. In terms of interpersonal stories, Terrio brings an intimacy to it all like Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, especially when it comes to vignettes preceded by captions with names. There's emotional restraint to the music which matches characters moods and frustrations that become more forboding as a revealing moment takes place on a rooftop and another one on a subway platform.
Similar to Being Julia, the production strongly identifies with the theatre experience with post-college New Yorkers trying to make it there. Close provides the needed vigor and duplicity along with many of the other characters to avoid a stale staginess that works in scenes with an endearing Banks and a likeable, clandestine Bradford who is starting to show his acting chops as an adult. Split-screens and deft lensing by Jim Denault accentuate varying city vantage points and the need of the conflicts to be resolved there.
Maybe Heights doesn't always achieve the emotional peaks it strives for, but it has vitality in a post 9/11 period in detailing the struggles in and around downtown and uptown areas as it peers in the skyline in Lower Manhattan.