So little time, so much trouble. In the 24-hour period that's dissected in Heights, the first feature from Harvard/Cambridge/USC film-school-educated Chris Terrio, an aspiring Manhattan photographer named Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) gets cold feet about her upcoming marriage to a dull but pleasant lawyer named Jonathan (James Marsden); a needy Broadway diva named Diana (Glenn Close), who also happens to be Isabel's mother, discovers that her wayward husband has undertaken a new affair; a ragged, idealistic young actor, Alec (Jesse Bradford), has to face personal and artistic questions about his future; and a bewildered-looking magazine writer named Peter (John Light) struggles with the enigma that is his next assignment -- a difficult British photographer who's celebrated for his work and reviled for his abuse of the young gay men who are his subjects.
As you might expect, these seemingly disparate threads get woven together at the end -- in the Magnolia and Crash manner. The hash of the film's narrative starts to make sense of a sort, and resolutions spin out across the screen like the filament of some uneasy knowledge, some great mystery partially solved. Writer/director Terrio seems to have no fear of such stuff -- the big questions in life. On the contrary, he and playwright Amy Fox (an Amherst grad), from whose stage production the movie is adapted, attack their considerations of art, love and the pursuit of happiness like a couple of nervy kids diving off the high board into the pool. Along with youthful bravado -- he is 29 -- Terrio seems also to be imbued with a kind of post-adolescent melancholy. Where he might have cracked wise about the traumas of his young "creative class" strivers, he tends to mope. But then, solemnity always comes easier than wit. Much of the film takes place in Woody Allen country -- the lofts and cocktail parties of the New York intelligentsia -- but neither Fox nor Terrio, try as they might, has anything like Allen's dead aim on neurotic folly.
Still, there are things here to like -- particularly the filmmaker's sense of the big city as a welter of infinite possibilities. New York -- uptown, downtown, crosstown -- is an emotionally charged character in Heights, the teeming place that's always reinventing itself and where you can recast your life too. For Isabel, that means considering a New York Times shoot in the Balkans rather than a wedding on the East Side. For Alec, it's a choice between well-meant fringe theater and a move into the mainstream. For Close's Diana, who here provides the ballast of age (if not much wisdom), reassessment might mean understanding that a little of Lady Macbeth goes a long way -- especially when, without meaning to, you're starting to live the part offstage.
In Terrio and Fox's hands, this tangle of troubles adds up to a kind of quirky, high-toned soap opera -- not always compelling, but consistently interesting enough to keep us watching and wondering what will become of these people next morning. Meanwhile, director of photography Jim Denault (who shot last year's unsettling drug drama Maria Full of Grace) provides some wonderfully unexpected New York views -- among them, the rooftop of a SoHo apartment building, the spooky interior of a Juilliard rehearsal hall -- that transmit the tension and excitement of the city. The twentysomething cast members work nicely together (you can feel the camaraderie), and Terrio gets a couple of sharp cameos from old hands. Michael Murphy is a Times editor, playwright/actor Eric Bogosian has a nice turn as a harried theater director, and George Segal pops in for one scene -- the movie's funniest -- as an old-school rabbi who can't accustom himself to mixed marriage. Those with a taste for self-absorbed excess will probably take to Close's florid portrayal of the ex-movie star and Broadway queen who now finds herself at a crossroads as crucial as any faced by the younger characters.
For writer/director Terrio, Heights heralds the beginning of what promises to be a fruitful career. Sad to say, it also signals the end for a universally respected figure in the cinema world. This was the last film produced by Ismail Merchant, the overseer of invariably literate, sumptuously filmed period pieces like A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. He died in May at age 68. What will now become of Merchant Ivory Productions is anyone's guess, but the courage and vision the Bombay-born Merchant brought to the company will be difficult to replace.