Chris Terrio's "Heights," opens on a stage where a couple of skinny, slouchy Julliard students perform a scene from "Macbeth" as though they were modeling for a Calvin Klein ad. By the time the girl pulls out a revolver, their teacher, Diana Lee (Glenn Close), has seen enough. "This isn't the Sopranos," she says. "Get a dagger."
Nobody ever does, though, which is the main problem with "Heights," a nicely executed, if slight, contempo-Woody Allen parable about actors who don't act and photographers who don't see. Based on a play by Amy Fox, "Heights" is beautifully shot on location in New York and consistently well-acted, but it sticks a little too closely to the surface to be very compelling. The story unfolds over a single day, divided into loose chapters separated by title cards, which organize the characters into intersecting pairs. It's the kind of movie that's easier to admire than to actually like.
Diana is an Oscar-winning grande dame of the New York theater scene whose upturned face is plastered on bus stops all over town. Even as she's bemoaning the absence of passion in the modern age, telling her students, "We're not even people of ice. We're tap water," Close keeps Diana on a tight, sardonic leash. Her exhortations are pure artistic bombast, designed to thrill her students, who hang on her every word as though one of them will turn out to be their lucky ticket to fame.
"What would I do if I found out my husband were sleeping with someone else?" she asks, setting up a big, supermarket pyramid-pile of expectations for the movie to topple as it progresses. "Nothing. I'd cry into my soy latte." Then, "For God's sake take some risks this weekend!"
Of course, Diana's husband is sleeping with someone else -- her understudy, whom Diana appropriately dubs "Eve Harrington." Diane and her husband have an arrangement, and Diana has no intention of making a scene. But as the day progresses she becomes more disturbed by the idea that her husband has fallen in love with the other woman. That morning, Diana tries lamely to bribe a young actor, Alec (Jesse Bradford), into being her date with the promise of some power-networking opportunities at her birthday party, which she's throwing for herself that evening, Mrs. Dalloway style. The actor is reticent because he's connected to Diana in an illicit way. Later, she turns her passive-aggressive attention to daughter Isabel.
If Diana is an actress in her own life, then Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a photographer who longs to document the lives of "real people" (by which she means the picturesquely poor, unattractive and otherwise unfortunate), is blind to her own. Weeks shy of her wedding to Jonathan (James Marsden), a lawyer with the face and body of an underwear model with whom she seems to enjoy a companionable if somewhat passionless relationship, Isabel finds herself beset with obstacles to her nuptials.
Isabel's ex-boyfriend Mark (Matt Davis) suddenly appears, dangling a dream-job shooting in Eastern Europe for the New York Times, which would conflict with her wedding. Later, she and Jonathan visit a bumbling rabbi (George Segal) for premarital counseling, and he tries to paint a picture of interfaith marriage as a honeymoon on the Gaza Strip. None of these objections have anything to do with Jonathan's well-kept secret, which threatens to surface in a very public, very disruptive way.
Genteel to a fault, "Heights" sticks to the shallows of New York haute-bohemian life, staying as clear as possible of anything resembling passion or loss of control. That's the point, but it's a little too arch to be much fun. Diana never confronts her husband or his lover with anything more than a wistful look and a wry smile. Isabel ignores all manner of warnings. Nobody weeps into his or her nutritionally sound caffeine drink. The only guy to inflict a puncture wound is an incidental mugger.
Instead, the characters' chiseled cheekbones cut through the city's august institutions and bastions of glamour like shark fins through still water. Close is a bright spot, but she's kept at too far a distance from her character's life to delve into it with the relish she surely could have mustered. Finding a distraught Isabel in a stairwell, late at night, Close's Diana resorts to poetry; which, really, is nobody's idea of a maternal consolation. In "Heights," things might get bad, but they never get ugly.
MPAA rating: R for language, brief sexuality and nudity
Times guidelines: Mild sexual content
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Chris Terrio. Producer Ismail Merchant and Richard Hawley. Screenplay by Amy Fox. Based on the original stage play "Heights" by Amy Fox. Additional screenplay material by Chris Terrio. Director of photography Jim Denault. Editor Sloane Klevin. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In limited release.