Review: “Heights” (2005)

September 17, 2008

A personal note before I start the review: I’m about ready to write off any
movie that contains major characters who are actors. I’m especially wary of
any movie that does so while taking place in New York or LA. I’m even warier
of movies that feature miserable actors, in particular ones who happen to be
brilliant at their craft. I make an exception for movies that feature people
who are in love with their work but miserable otherwise (see Bob Fosse’s
brilliant and entertaining “All that Jazz”). The message of any of the good
films about actors seems to be that success comes at a price. The worst
films about actors forget to mention what one is buying.

“Heights” is one of the worst ones, make no mistake. It stars Glenn Close,
in a brave and daring performance as Diana, a veteran actress and director
who routinely cheats on her husband with her actors. She’s got a tenuous
relationship with her daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), who is soon to be
married to Jonathan (James Marsden), and they both live just downstairs from
Alec (Jesse Bradford), who just happens to be auditioning for Diana’s new
play. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Isabel is miserable. Why, I couldn’t say. Yes, she gets fired from her dream
career as a photographer, but she’s miserable before the firing. She’s one
of those movie characters who is never happy, despite being young, rich, and
in love. I’ve never met one of these people, but I think I’d dislike them if
I did. She certainly isn’t interesting to watch.

“Heights” mistakes cynicism for insight. The obvious inspiration is Mike
Nichols’s “Closer,” another film containing a collection of really terrible
people. Nichols’s movie, however, had the courage to really be about
terrible people and how they function and relate to one another. “Heights”
thinks that simply observing such behavior is on the same level.

Perhaps “Heights” worst offense is the fact that the revelations that
comprise the ending have true impact and surprise. I had to think long and
hard about whether these represented a high point in the movie for me, but I
eventually decided that it was the final nail in the coffin. A good ten
minutes with eighty behind it makes it that much more insufferable; why
couldn’t the whole movie be as good as its ideas?

Or maybe it’s that the movie is just about boring, awful people. I think
that might have something to do with it. I tend to dislike movies with
dislikable characters anyway, unless they go all the way with it and make
them into real human beings capable of terrible things. Movies like this
include “Carnal Knowledge,” “Closer,” “Match Point,” and “Goodfellas.” All
of those movies had a hook beyond the awful people, though. These movies
were about things, or at the very least, they asked some questions about
human nature at their core.

I have a name for movies like this. Wallowers. They don’t have good plots,
but they start and end in basically the same place. The characters have no
major conflicts and collect dust as they dredge through their unhappy lives.
The movie wallows in their self-loathing. Other entries in the genre include
“Five Easy Peices,” “Half Nelson,” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” perhaps the
ultimate of the genre. “Heights” isn’t as good as any of those movies, and I
never want to see any of them again, either.

Yes, I hated it. With all that said, if terrible people doing boring things
doesn’t bother you, “Heights” is well-made and contains unique dialogue from
distinct characters. Glenn Close is the only person in the movie who throws
herself at the material the way she should, and everyone else seems to be
sleepwalking through their roles. I guess George Segal is always watchable,
but his part is very small, so it doesn’t really count in my book.


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