Movie Takes

Heights

Self-discoveries the audience will figure out long before the characters do.

By 6.23.05

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Opening on the same day as My Summer of Love, Heights, which is adapted by Amy Fox from her own play and directed by Chris Terrio, should have taken a lesson from it. A movie about role-playing and identity can be either comic or tragic but what it cannot be -- or cannot be and still be reasonably watchable -- is stodgily moralistic, as Heights is. You wouldn't think, in this day and age, that anyone would still bother to make a whole movie about a young man's having to come to terms with the fact that he is gay -- let alone that anyone would bother to load it up with further portentous musings about role-playing on and off stage, sexual fidelity and feminist proprieties about the balance between work and relationships. Haven't we seen all this stuff somewhere before?

That is no objection if the movie has something new or original to say, but Heights does not, at least so far as I can see. Moreover, even at the most basic dramatic level the movie has no energizing force. The story meanders on its desultory way while leaving us mystified as to why Jonathan (James Marsden) wants so badly to pass as a heterosexual and marry the beautiful Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) while obliterating all trace of his homosexual past. This is not an implausible scenario in itself, of course, but the movie offers no hint -- either in terms of social stigma or family pressures or some peculiar psychology of his own -- why passing himself off as something he is not is so important to this particular young man, who hasn't got the excuse of a teenager or a Michael Jackson that he's just trying something on.

It's true that passing oneself off as something one is not is the family business Jonathan is hoping to marry into, since Isabel's mother, Diana (Glenn Close), is a world famous stage-actress and director. There's a hint of the connection here when Alec (Jesse Bradford) is reading for a part before Diana and the author and asks: "I wasn't sure if the character was gay."

"Well," replies the author, "he's gay, but not gay." Just like Jonathan, you see.

But this only compounds the problem. The more unexplained self-deceptions there are the more irksome becomes the authors' habit of not explaining them. We know, that is, why theater-people might be tempted to confuse the theater with the real world, and to carry their stage roles over into their daily lives, even though Jonathan himself is a lawyer and not an actor. Lawyers have roles to play too. But this is all the more reason why the play or movie in which they appear has to keep the bright line separating the two firmly in view. Doing so would seem to demand as a minimum condition a clear understanding of the kinds of self-deception that both Jonathan and Isabel are engaging in. Instead, self-deception is simply taken for granted here. In the world of the film, that's just the way of the world.

It's not just Jonathan. It's also Diana, whose posing as a sexual adventuress fails to take the sting out of her husband's infidelity. It's also the improbable surprise of the biographer (John Light) of a prominent British photographer at further evidence of his subject's cruelty with each interview of the string of ex-lovers to which Jonathan belongs. It's also Alec (Jesse Bradford), a young actor who looks like a candidate for Diana's next seduction but who doesn't know quite how he feels about his current lover. It's even an old boyfriend of Isabel's who now wants her back without understanding why she dumped him in the first place. And then what about Isabel herself? What does she think she is playing at as Jonathan's fiancee, busily planning her wedding, when what she really wants is to be a photo-journalist?

Golly! What a lot of mixed-up individuals. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. But each of these dilemmas is more banal than the last, and if they're all just mixed-up for the sake of being mixed-up, or so that Mr. Terrio and Ms. Fox can demonstrate their own cleverness in revealing to us what is hidden from the characters themselves, the effect is artistically enervating. They offer us only drearily predictable choices between the right roles and the wrong roles, between self-knowledge and self-delusion, so that when, in the final reel, self-discovery finally comes, it does so anti-climactically. Doubtless it is a good thing if people are able finally to see the truths about themselves which have hitherto remained hidden from them, but if those truths have been obvious to us all along -- or if they are such pedestrian truths as that they like boys rather than girls or that they want a career more than a relationship -- we are inclined to yawn and ask: "What took you so long?"

There may be good reasons why what the authors and the audience can see about them should be so obscure and difficult to see for the characters themselves, but without some accounting for those reasons, the drama of self-discovery falls flat. Moreover, as My Summer of Love reminds us, real dramas of self-discovery are usually negative. That is we find what are the wrong roles for us much more easily and, cinematically speaking, much more interestingly than we find (if we ever do find) the right ones. That's why there's something too neat, too pat and just a bit smug about this movie which spoils it.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.