Probably the first clue that something is awry among the articulate, attractive characters in “Heights” comes when an old friend asks young Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) how her engagement ring feels.
“Heavy,” she responds, half-joking.
The film itself is a lot like that, too — sparkling and multifaceted, and ultimately heavier than it looks.
That weight isn’t a bad thing. It’s a rare display of confidence from two first-time filmmakers — director Chris Terrio and screenwriter Amy Fox — that they’re willing to take their characters to complex, dark places, when it could have been easier to create yet another romantic comedy, set amid New York City’s glitterati.
Besides Banks — who gives an effortless performance that should finally make her a star after chameleon-like supporting parts in “Seabiscuit” and “Catch Me If You Can” — the eclectic cast includes a diva-licious Glenn Close, James Marsden, George Segal and singer Rufus Wainwright, stealing scenes in his first major screen role.
Life changes drastically over a 24-hour period for the main figures in “Heights” as they come to realizations and make choices, but in a way that’s intelligently written. The film forces them (and us) to ask, how well do we really know anyone? — but does so in a way that avoids soapiness, for the most part.
Isabel, a photographer, shares a Chelsea apartment with her lawyer fiance, Jonathan (Marsden from the “X-Men” movies). But even before their absurd sit-down with Jonathan’s rabbi — “Why are you breaking your mother’s heart marrying this shiksa?” asks Segal, hilarious in his brief role — it’s obvious that their relationship is uneasy.
First Isabel gets a visit from an old boyfriend (Matt Davis) who confesses to remnants of feelings for her. He then asks her to meet with him and several editors at The New York Times about a project that would take her out of the country, just as she’s planning her wedding.
It probably doesn’t help that the example set by her own parents has been unstable and unorthodox: They have an open marriage, which until now has been OK with her mother, Diana (Close), a stage and screen star who must endure her husband’s infidelities (and maintain her own) in the public eye.
(Close is essentially playing a larger-than-life version of herself: an accomplished actress who gets stopped outside Lincoln Center for autographs, and who gets to chew up the scenery as Lady Macbeth. She reportedly inserted a great deal of her own input into the role, and clearly had a marvelous time doing it.)
Aspiring actor Alec (Jesse Bradford) comes to audition before Diana for a part — the character is “gay but not gay,” he’s told — and he instantly intrigues her. (Diana is also feeling a little vulnerable, as her husband has a new girlfriend with whom he’s fallen in love.)
Alec just happens to live in the same building as Isabel and Jonathan. Diana invites him to a party she’s having that night. Isabel and Jonathan are expected to be there, too, as is Peter (John Light), a journalist doing a piece for Vanity Fair magazine about a photographer who’s as famous for his work as he is for his flings with his attractive male subjects. Jonathan is one of these subjects, as is Wainwright’s character, an acerbic queen who brings Peter to Diana’s party.
So the coincidences pile up as their paths cross. It might seem too easy and insular, but having shot the film on the streets and in the subways of Manhattan lends an air of realism.
Eventually, “Heights” slows down and gets quiet in a way that lets us appreciate these characters, and makes us realize that what they dare say to each other and what they keep to themselves are equally as powerful.