As the musician Syd Straw once remarked, if you're one in a million, in New York there are nine people just like you.
That observation kept recurring to me as I watched "Heights," in which first-time director Chris Terrio has assembled an improbably bland group of actors to portray an equally boring group of Manhattan show-bizzers. The only person with a pulse is Glenn Close, who plays a legendary actress-turned-director at the center of an artistic and social wasp's nest. Based on the play of the same name by Amy Fox, "Heights" is a contrived romantic round-robin in which Close's character auditions a young man who turns out to be the neighbor of her daughter, whose fiance is hiding some kind of secret, which involves said neighbor, et cetera, ad nauseam, with an emphasis on the nauseam.
Terrio, a protege of James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, has inherited the preening, mannered attention to style that characterized the worst of that team's occasionally overstuffed literary adaptations. Rather than the spontaneity that such an of-the-moment New York story demands, Terrio resorts to lazy, pretentious name-dropping (the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne) and pseudo-insider theater references. None of it rings true, nor do precious affectations such as having one couple communicate with each other via walkie-talkies.
With the exception of Close, who delivers a radiantly fierce performance as a woman on the verge of a raging breakdown (and who gets to do some delicious snippets as Lady Macbeth), every single actor here seems to be a pale version of someone better. In Jesse Bradford, who plays the young actor Alec, for example, viewers may see one of the guys casting agents go to when they can't get Mark Ruffalo; similarly Elizabeth Banks, who plays the soon-to-be-married daughter, is but a breathily stilted Parker Posey manquee.
Indeed, "Heights" is nothing more than a second-rate version of several much better movies, all of which are available on DVD and video. So audiences looking for a witchy backstage Broadway melodrama are hereby directed to "All About Eve"; those looking for a picaresque New York romance with a twist might like Greg Mottola's charming "The Daytrippers"; those craving a voyeuristic peek at the Manhattan bourgeoisie can see Fred Schepisi's adaptation of John Guare's definitive "Six Degrees of Separation." Come to think of it, that last one is yet another name dropped in "Heights," a movie content simply to invoke its betters rather than aspire for the greater things suggested by its title.
Heights (112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, brief sexuality and nudity.