Review: ‘In the Heights’ (little dreams, big city)

The feel-good don’t-think-too-hard-about-it musical of the summer.

From a beach-side bar packed with attentive children, a young man (Anthony Ramos) recalls the suspiciously autobiographical tale of Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights, Nuevo York. Almost thirty, he dreams about returning to the Dominican Republic to reclaim his late papi’s bar and relive the happy days he remembers from childhood. Usnavi also dreams of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who is days away from walking out of his life forever to pursue a downtown career in fashion. Meanwhile, Stanford-student Nina (Leslie Grace) comes home for a visit, carrying the weight of the neighborhood on her shoulders with expectations of her success. While dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) is smitten with Nina, he keeps his distance as the faithful employee of her father Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Under the watchful eye of their neighborhood matriarch Abuela (Olga Merediz), the story takes place over three days leading up to a citywide blackout… and nothing will ever be the same.

Actor, playwright, and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit — no, it wasn’t Hamilton — completes a 22-year journey from original idea to film version, including being postponed a year due to the COVID pandemic. Based on his home neighborhood in the title, In the Heights was born of a lack of Latino representation on the stage and embracing hip-hop as a musical inspiration for Broadway. While his role as Jack in Mary Poppins Returns was how film audiences remember being introduced to Lin-Manuel, will audiences turn out for the screen-ready adaption of his semi-personal work?

Based on the book version by Quiara Alegría Hudes and helmed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, In the Heights follows the same story beats as similar Broadway fare but with Latino and Hispanic inspirations. While fate saw the filmed version of Hamilton released in place of Heights original release, it’s easy to pick out Miranda’s fall-backs for fast lyrics and penchant for mega info-dump songs including similar rhythm and rhyme schemes, but they work for the material. The production’s secret weapon is siren Olga Merediz with her catalyst arc — warning: bring tissues — but other than a welcome slant in character ethnicity, the rest feels no more exceptional than average (read: successful) Broadway fare… which now exists in the shadow of the superior filmed stage version of Hamilton.

The world the story occupies is sanitized for ease of enjoyment, which is in no way by accident. “The block” has no major crimes, no substance abusers, no drug dealers, no gang members, no murders or murderers, and no weapons — only the occasional shoplifter, whom store owners readily know on sight because everyone knows everyone. This frees the characters to worry only about their own ambitions and/or the consequences of their actions — in song and soliloquy, of course — rather than fearing rich developers buying up property or being harassed by profiling police to fill quotas. This fictional Washington Heights is so visually and ambitiously idyllic, viewers might wonder why anyone would want to leave it at all. One notable yet oddly minor plot point touches upon the politically charged DACA issue and the unresolved (as of this review) plight of Dreamers. Minus this one revelation and for all the good will instilled, the missing motivation to “move on up” is glaring, especially in light of the overlong final act.

Don’t misunderstand. In the Heights is good, but it falls short of great; being translated to an effects-laden film only amplifies the shortcomings in the core narrative: leaving to chase the B.B.D. (bigger better deal… with apologies to The Mask). Fans of Lin-Manuel and the stage version will enjoy it, but it’s difficult not to see Hamilton peeking out from the cracks in the narrative… in spite of having jumped to the big screen first.

In the Heights is rated PG-13 for some language, suggestive references, and why does Mr. Softee look so damn presidential…?

Three skull recommendation out of four

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