THE STORY – The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop. The likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
THE CAST – Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV & Jimmy Smits
THE TEAM – Jon M. Chu (Director) & Quiara Alegría Hudes (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 143 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Jon M. Chu’s “In The Heights” was the first film I saw in a cinema since March 2020. Not that that should have any bearing on this review, but context is important, and for my first film back in theaters to be a celebration of the neighborhood in which I live, a musical that overflows with all the joy and vitality that we have all been missing for the past year and a quarter, is an essential piece of context. Of course, given the film’s timing, it is likely to be the first film back in cinemas for many people, and you really couldn’t ask for a more appropriate one. “In The Heights” is a blast of energy with a cinematic verve that reminds us why we love going to the movies. Even if it is not perfect – which it isn’t – it is very easy to forgive its missteps in light of the sheer exuberance on display in every frame.
Taking the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking, Tony Award-winning 2005 musical and updating it to the more-or-less present day, “In The Heights” is about Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in the heavily Latinx Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. The opening number effortlessly introduces us to his friends and neighbors, who all have their hopes, dreams, and local businesses: Kevin (Jimmy Smitts), who owns a taxicab service; Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just returned home after her first year at Stanford; Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at Kevin’s dispatch and is in love with Nina; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin who serves as his assistant at the bodega; “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), a retired maid who treats the entire neighborhood as her children and grandchildren and essentially raised Usnavi after his parents died; and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and the girls who work at her salon, Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), Cuca (Dascha Polanco), and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of moving downtown and working as a fashion designer – and whom Usnavi has a crush on. Usnavi’s “sueñito” (“little dream”) is to move back to the Dominican Republic and reopen his father’s old bar after the property was devastated by a hurricane; he finally has the chance.
A lot has happened in the world since “In The Heights” was on Broadway (including the increasing gentrification of the neighborhood). Original book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes has done a decent job updating the story to reflect more current concerns: Sonny is now a dreamer, giving more weight to his character and his interest in activism, and instead of getting burned out from working two jobs to pay her tuition, Nina is now dropping out of Stanford – which her father had to sell some of his business space to pay for, despite her scholarship – because she felt aggressively othered there. These are all smart changes that increase the film’s timeliness and resonance. Some of the other changes from the stage musical don’t work out so well, though. The choice to keep one musical number that could easily have been much shorter with a more impactful dialogue scene (“Champagne”), and to cut one that does important work developing the story’s themes and provides necessary time with one of the film’s most underused characters (“Hundreds of Stories”), is emblematic of the film’s problems as a whole. Unfortunately, all of the original musical’s book problems are only heightened in this film adaptation – the characters still have one defining trait that determines all their actions, the neighborhood is overly idealized, and every problem is relatively easily overcome. Most, unfortunately, the role of Claudia is sadly underwritten. The heart of “In The Heights” on Broadway, here she is mainly on the sidelines and a warm presence that we spend too little time with to achieve the emotional impact necessary for the second half of the film to work as it is intended.
But the strength of “In The Heights” has never come from its book. Instead, it’s come from the music and the energetic performances of its cast. The film does not disappoint on either of those fronts. While Miranda’s score may lack some of the freshness it had in 2005 (especially since he’s used many of the same rhythmic and melodic tricks to more effective ends in the later “Hamilton“), it is still full of the pep, vim, and verve that will have you dancing in your seat and applauding after every song. There isn’t a single weak link in the entire ensemble. Ramos is an endearing lead, effortlessly anchoring the story with his natural charisma, and Barrera matches him beat for beat, a true triple threat who burns up the screen. This film should catapult both of them to superstardom. As the other main couple, Hawkins and Grace have a youthful buoyancy that lifts their scenes together. Merediz, the one original Broadway cast member reprising her role, is just as warm and lovable as any good grandmother worth her salt. Still, the dramatic heft she brings to her big number, “Paciencia y Fe,” cannot be understated. Smitts, Rubin-Vega, Beatriz, and Polanco all have less to do but are infectiously fun to watch in every scene.
However, all that said, the real star of “In The Heights” is Jon M. Chu himself. The “Crazy Rich Asians” director proves himself to be a born musical filmmaker, starting with a mastery of tone that is vital to selling a musical. The film begins with just the right amount of heightened, almost-magical realism and never puts a foot wrong, presenting a musical version of the world that feels both real and cinematic in equal measure. Each number goes on its own flight of fancy, whether it’s an overlay of a dance routine in a window, giant rolls of fabric blowing off of buildings, synchronized swimming routines in a community pool, Benny and Nina dancing up and down a building facade, or most impactfully, turning a subway ride into a dramatization of Claudia’s journey from Cuba to America. Chu is also perfectly in tune with the rhythms of the music, moving the camera and cutting between different angles to show off Christopher Scott’s dynamic choreography to its fullest effect. The film, unfortunately, suffers from pacing issues in the second half, but that feels more like a problem with the screenplay, especially since Chu keeps the energy blissfully high throughout. Whenever you find yourself feeling the long running time, some new cinematic flair will engage you anew. “In The Heights” may not be a full-on great movie musical, but it is a kaleidoscopic blast of cinematic energy that is as perfect a “welcome back to cinemas” as Hollywood could have given us. But the fact that it feels just as vital now as it did on Broadway in 2005 is icing on the cake.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A joyous explosion of cultural celebration. Jon M. Chu directs the hell out of the glorious musical numbers, getting the most out of the talented ensemble cast.
THE BAD – The film suffers from pacing issues as it goes on. Cuts from the stage show flatten some of the characters.
THE OSCARS – None