I hate PopTarts.
— Isabel (Elizabeth Banks)
Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) takes pictures of the Korean grocer across the street. Lots of pictures. While it’s starting to bother her lawyer fiancé, Jonathan (James Marsden), she’s thinking about how she can get some more, maybe from a “higher angle.” Tomorrow, she asserts, “I’m going to the roof.” She can’t possibly know that going to the roof will reveal more than a different look at the grocer, but you might intuit as much, given the precise arrangements of tight interiors and artful dialogue in the early moments of Heights.
Adapted by Amy Fox from her one-act play, Chris Terrio’s movie sets Isabel’s day at the center of five intersecting lives. It makes some too tidy connections, via familiar literary references (Henry James, Shakespeare), repeated and often unsubtle metaphors (the rooftop views that prove both revelatory and daunting, Isabel’s self-protective framing of experience through her camera lens), title cards to introduce characters, clichéd closeting, and exquisitely choreographed melodrama (cell phone conversations appear in split screens, in one instance literally brought together as the speakers meet on the sidewalk). But it also allows for one or two elegant performances, as well as a bit of reflection on the usefulness of artifice.
Isabel knows a little something about the latter, as she more or less dances along the edges of her life, hoping to maintain enough speed so as not to have to look at it. Rushing from work (she’s a wedding photographer) to a pre-ceremony conference with Jonathan’s earnest childhood rabbi (George Segal), to a meeting with Times magazine editors who want her for exactly the sort of journalistic essay photography she wants to do, Isabel runs repeatedly into disappointments. These take the form of a former and still careless boyfriend, Mark (Matt Davis), a distracted Jonathan, and a mother whose passive-aggressive brilliance is outshone only by her artistic genius. A renowned and much respected actress, Diana Lee (the frankly wondrous Glenn Close), is currently rehearsing for a Broadway rendition of Macbeth (or, as she calls it, “the Scottish play”), casting young actors for a directing project, and in her spare time, fretting over Isabel’s marriage: Jonathan just doesn’t seem right.
Isabel comprehends her mother’s insinuated concerns as signs of her own legendary coupling failures (“We just don’t click on these things, mom, the way you talk about relationships”), and Diana can’t quite find her own focus. On a sidewalk, she sees a poster advertising Macbeth, a glam-and-arty sort of portrait (“I look like I’m doing The Miracle Worker,” wails Diana). She won’t admit it, but Diana’s got her own day of pain going on, as she’s learned from her loyalist of coworkers, Henry (a refreshingly understating Eric Bogosian) that her philandering husband is sleeping with her younger understudy (“fucking Eve Harrington!”). Fixing to maintain her diva self, Diana scopes around for a distraction of her own, settling for a minute on a scruffily cute auditioner, Alec (Jesse Bradford). By the time she sees Isabel by the poster, she’s rather tired of herself, as he’s put off her invitation to her birthday party for other “plans.” Alec, for his part, is also busy, working the usual young-actor-in-New York jobs, catering and Fringe Festivaling, and deciding what to do about a secret relationship that appears to be going nowhere he wants it to go.
Not one to wait, Diana quickly hones in on other diversions, whether dancing partners or professional collaborators, underlining her distinction from Isabel, who wants to make her decision deliberately. Rejecting that ex-boyfriend, Isabel sighs, “In 20 years, you’ll still be smoking pot on rooftops with girls who don’t know who to love.” But when he asks where she’ll be, she offers only, “Someplace else.” That she doesn’t have a clear picture is reinforced when she shoots a photo of a woman and her child on the subway and the mother asks, “You ain’t got your own fucking life?”
Isabel’s perspective is odiously yet sometimes delicately limited by her desire for what she thinks is a “life.” To that end, she wants to believe Jonathan’s assertion that they are “real people… having a very real wedding.” You know he’s lying, at least about his own past, as he spends his sections of the film trying to avoid and then threaten a Vanity Fair writer concerning a famous photographer’s about-to-open exhibit. The show features shots of a college-age Jonathan in ecstatic poses, something he did years ago, but has never mentioned to Isabel.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that the secret lurks in the form of photographs, or that Isabel resists seeing what’s in front of her. While Diana finds both release and control in performance, Isabel seeks order in her photographs. Seeking the sort of life her mother hasn’t had, Isabel finds other ways to deceive herself.