[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

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