IF THERE'S anything good to be said about "Heights," it's Glenn Close's strutty, booming performance as Diana, a veteran actress who lords it over her stage and acting students, while she casts a controlling, lascivious eye over a promising new actor (Jesse Bradford). She's a female lothario of sorts, who finds her stage authority doesn't necessarily translate into her personal life.
Unfortunately in this Merchant-Ivory production (which marks the second to last film of Ismail Merchant, who died in May), Diana is about the only character of interest. The others, though played by estimable performers, including Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden and Matt Davis, feel like cardboard cutout New Yorkers.
"We don't know how to be people of passion," Diana exclaims to a collection of rapt acting students, early in the film. She might as well be admonishing the movie's cast.
What gives depth to Close's portrayal is the vulnerability she reveals underneath the bravado. Diana has good reason to suspect her philandering husband (Phil Tabor) is having an affair with yet another actor. The diva decides that she can rescue Alec (Bradford) from a life of off-Broadway obscurity, if only he'll respond to her overcharged come-ons. But he seems strangely reluctant for the plum role. This is the beginning of a simplistic puzzle that director-co-writer Chris Terrio and screenwriter Amy Fox (adapting her play) have woven.
Alec, it turns out, lives in the same building as Diana's daughter Isabel (Banks), who's engaged to the squarish yuppie Jonathan (Marsden). But Jonathan seems to be getting cold feet about the upcoming wedding. To tell more would give away the movie's tiny little game. But the character who helps uncover everything is Peter (John Light), who is writing an article for Vanity Fair about the pileup of rejected lovers lying in the wake of a famous photographer. Peter's quest uncovers some predictable revelations.
"Heights" trades on a secondhand conceit about New York City as the storied citadel of countless artistic dreams. And George Segal, Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright and Eric Bogosian are thrown into the cast, as if their mutual presence will lend the project a weightier, New York mystique. Apparently, we must all be mystically compelled by the city that 1) never sleeps, 2) harbors the Yankees and 3) insert shopworn third cliche here. And we must be sure to ignore the sustained, high-pitched note of mediocrity screaming throughout the movie like a dog whistle that, clearly, the filmmakers can't hear. I bring your attention to a rather charming little article in The Washington Post last Sunday by local actress Rachel Manteuffel, whose amusing, self-deprecating saga of her efforts to make it past an audition at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda displayed the kind of unpretentious charm that "Heights" would have done well to adopt.
HEIGHTS (R, 93 minutes) -- Contains strong language, brief sexuality and nudity. Area theaters.