dir. Chris Terrio
Opens Fri June 24.

Based on a play, set among the idle rich, produced by Merchant/Ivory in unfamiliar modern-day mode: The early indicators of a tendon-stretching yawn are bodacious. Still, that old chestnut about initial impressions can occasionally be true. Heights, the fiercely entertaining, hugely precocious feature debut for 28-year-old director Chris Terrio, treads on some very familiar turf, but with enough style and unusual empathy to make the trip feel, if not quite new, well worth taking.

Branching out from a single-act play by screenwriter Amy Fox (Terrio gets an unusual "additional material by" credit, for reasons which he, probably wisely, declined to elaborate on while on the record during a recent interview), the single-day scenario follows a handful of unhappy, mostly upper-crust campers—struggling actor, diminished diva, stymied photographer, eager-beaver journalist, shady lawyer—through various stages of romantic and professional flux in Manhattan. Along the way, alliances are broken, relationships are struck anew, and many, many martinis are consumed. Cameos from the likes of George Segal, Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright, and Eric Bogosian complete the feel of knowing, yet somehow non-smarmy, Big Apple insiderism.

The potential for overly stagy melodrama is high, certainly, but unlike the recent Closer, which Heights often more than tangentially resembles, Terrio and Fox don't groove overly on the chance for rampant nastiness between characters, preferring instead to explore both the apparent and invisible connectors binding the group. Not that it's a soft-focus study, exactly; as a late party scene best shows, while Terrio clearly loves these characters, he's savvy enough to acknowledge their considerable self-absorbed flaws.

The actors are more than willing to follow the director's lead. As the reluctant tie between storylines, the relatively unknown Elisabeth Banks (revered by all 12 people who caught her performance in Wet Hot American Summer) proves to be a capable bridge, relishing her moments in the spotlight, while also ably providing background support to others in the cast. Meanwhile, Jesse Bradford, whose early promise in Soderbergh's King of the Hill has been tarnished somewhat by junk like Swimfan, makes a strong impression as an unusually repressed actor. The minor revelation, though, is James Marsden, as a pretty boy attorney harboring some major secrets from his fiancée. Normally a balsa-wood hunk of scenery in films such as X-Men and The Notebook, Marsden displays some impressive chops here. The closest thing to a villain in the piece, he shows enough of a soft underbelly to garner, if not forgiveness, a level of sympathy unusual to the genre.

And then there's Glenn Close. Man alive, what a performance. Hot on the heels of her triumphant season of The Shield, she utterly owns the screen here, as a galactically egoed Grand Dame of stage and screen, unable to keep from holding forth at every opportunity. Intensely theatrical, self-knowing, and vibrantly alive, it's the kind of role that every actor dreams about, and precious few pull off. Close more than nails the dismount.

To be honest, Heights may be one of those movies that excessive critical enthusiasm may ultimately work against. Close's gargantuan performance aside, the majority of its accomplishments are in a minor key; genuine, yet polished to the point of casual inscrutability. To audiences feeling burned out by waves of Aaron Spelling nouveau-riche belly-shirt melodramatics, the film's achievements may fail to register at first glance. The intelligence and care behind the camera should ultimately shine through, however.

For this initially wary viewer, at least, speaking with the director while he was in town for the recent film festival confirmed both his overall potential, and the inner strength of his debut. Whether giving props to his recently deceased mentor Ismail Merchant, good-naturedly knocking his own inexperience, or waxing enthusiastic about his next project (New York again, but this time a down and dirty gang saga inspired by the Brazilian epic City of God), Terrio displayed a poise that belied his age, and more than forgives the occasional soft spots of his calling card. Few things are for sure in this silly business, but mark this: He's a comer. ■