in the heights review

When In The Heights opened on Broadway in 2008, it was a scrappy little show that could, the product of a college sophomore’s wild ambitions and talent that had been honed and tweaked for years before finally hitting the Great White Way. But more than two decades after Lin-Manuel Miranda initially conceived of In the Heights during his second year at Wesleyan, Miranda’s profile has far exceeded anything that he created pre-Hamilton. So returning to Miranda’s first stage musical made back when he was young, scrappy, and hungry (I’m sorry, that will be the first and last one) with a glossy big-budget adaptation from the director who made Crazy Rich Asians is…a little weird, to say the least.

This is a musical that is bursting with energy, and vigor, and the raw imperfections of youth. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of its appeal. The feature film adaptation of In the Heights tries to recapture these rough edges, but it does it with a bit of the glitz and glamour that comes with every Hollywood musical. The end result is a movie musical that feels both a little too imperfect and too perfect, but everything is just so joyous and full of spectacle that you don’t notice much.

Set in the close-knit community of Washington Heights in New York City, In the Heights follows Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, ready to be the next big heartthrob), a bodega owner who dreams of buying his father’s old bar back in his home country of the Dominican Republic. Usnavi and “Abuela” Claudia (a tremendous Olga Merediz) are the unofficial heart of the Washington Heights community, with the entire neighborhood lining up to get coffee at Usnavi’s bodega every morning with a cheery greeting or a randy joke, and regularly piling into Abuela’s house for dinner.

Among those regulars are Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin who helps run the bodega; Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s best friend who works at the local taxi dispatch but dreams of starting his own business; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, always a joy to watch), the owner of the dispatch where Benny works and the father of Nina (a wonderfully vulnerable Leslie Grace), the local pride and joy of the Heights who has just returned from her semester at Stanford after secretly dropping out. And of course, there’s the restless Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, oozing charisma), the neighborhood beauty whom Usnavi nurses a crush on and who always gets her coffee free at the bodega.

In the Heights follows a loose narrative around these characters, but it’s more of a snapshot of a rich, bustling neighborhood that is in danger of “disappearing,” as Usnavi narrates to a young girl on a serene beach at the beginning of the film. The framing device of Usnavi telling this story to the group of children on a beautiful beach is one of the weaker choices Chu and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes make, a halfhearted attempt to lend a fairytale feel to the film. In addition to stretching the already baggy film on for longer than necessary, it also creates an unintentional distance between the audience and the story, which is not what you want for In the Heights, a musical that thrives on the energy of the here and now. While the framing device helps to give a heightened sheen to the story that Usnavi tells — allowing for the splashy musical numbers where people dance on walls, and fun stylized graphics that Chu throws in to liven up a musical sequence — you don’t necessarily need that. As a musical, there’s already a built-in artifice to it. This is a movie where people burst into song, after all.

But the songs, oh, the songs. Miranda’s music and lyrics hit as hard as they did on stage. “In the Heights” is a spectacular opening number that brings the music of the city to life — the ringing of a doorbell, and the clicks of women’s heels on pavement building up the beat and rhythm of the song as Ramos and company sing and rap along. “No Me Diga” is a bubbly little number in the hair and nail salon run by the outrageous gossip Daniela (a dynamite Daphne Rubin-Vega), where Vanessa works alongside the air-headed flirts Carla and Cuca (Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco, both extremely fun). This sequence has some of the film’s most delightful moments — including a Chaplin-esque “nail dance” — and best represents the film’s marriage between the raw energy of the original musical and Chu’s penchant for visual flair.

There are several other standout musical sequences that play into the big, splashy expectations for this film: “96,000” (a song very reminiscent of a later Miranda Hamilton number), which features a gorgeous Busby Berkeley-esque pool sequence; the Merediz-led “Paciencia Y Fe” is a beautiful experimental number that showcases Chu’s talent with dance; and “When the Sun Goes Down,” a dreamy duet between Nina and Benny where they twirl along the brick walls of a walk-up. But Chu is surprisingly subdued when it comes to embracing the visual language of musicals. He often chooses to stay in close-up and lingers on little details of the New York neighborhood, rather than letting the dancers shine in wide shots. And the choreography for the songs often feels spontaneous and unpolished, almost like a callback to Chu’s Step Up days. It feels like Chu wants to bring a realism to the film that works against that heightened aspect built into the musical — perhaps in an attempt to capture that vivacity of the original stage production. While the spontaneity of the dance numbers ultimately works in Chu’s favor, the frequent close-ups do not, and it makes me wish he showed the potential for splashy musicals that he did in his Step Up movies.

But despite its minor missteps, In the Heights is an unabashed delight. The cast all give deeply felt, deeply fun performances, with Ramos, Merediz, and Barrera as standouts. In the Heights is a celebration of a rich culture and a group of dreamers, who are messy and full of contradictions, but whose emotions always ring true.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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