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Review: ‘In The Heights’ Is Almost Oppressively Joyful

Filled with splashy songs and uplifting sentiments, ‘In the Heights’ is such a celebration of itself that it almost forgets to tell a story amid its many colorful characters.

Directed by Jon M. Chu and based upon Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway show, In the Heights is being pitched by Warner Bros. as their own “welcome back to the movies” summer event flick. Opening June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max (in participating markets), the film is nonetheless the very definition of “worth seeing in a theater.” It’s a big-scale, lively and explicitly colorful live-action musical. Recent history (La La Land, Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, The Greatest Showman) has proven to be an equally valid event movie sub-genre in the streaming/VOD era. The film is filled with big-scale musical numbers, featuring crowd scenes with actual crowds. That’s something I missed during the previous summer filled with indie “haunted house movie about trauma” horror flick VOD offerings. It also offers a stacked cast of crowd-pleasing characters amid an almost cloyingly up-with-people affirmation narrative.

Set in the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, In the Heights gets off to a roaring start with a densely-populated and intricately choreographed roll-call of most of the film’s prime characters. We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs the local convenience store and dreams of moving to the Dominion Republic who introduces us to folks played by the likes of Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Stephanie Beatriz and Jimmy Smits (who has aged 35 minutes in the 35 years since Running Scared). Aside from a subplot concerning Jimmy Smits’ daughter (Leslie Grace) dropping out of Stanford for painfully understandable reasons and how that allows the film to insert DACA into the otherwise “apolitical” narrative, the story is barely a story until the film’s final portions. The film runs 144 minutes and often plays like a glorified advertisement for its cinematically underrepresented community.

Fortunately, the notion of “giving community X their own big Hollywood movie” doesn’t result in the rooting against action that felled Crazy Rich Asians and The Happiest Season (both centered on a romantic relationship that was likely doomed). However, you can feel the edges of the original show being sanded off for the sake of making everyone in the cast at least somewhat “likable.” There’s a lot of inter-character conflicts that didn’t make the cut. While one would typically chalk up such omissions to narrative efficiency, the changes from the source material result in less story and less character development. While unquestionably entertaining, the result is, not unlike (again) Crazy Rich Asians and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a kind of “They’re just like us!” ethnic tourism jaunt. The characters are ethnically specific but just generic enough to remind you of your own extended family.

While the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts, many of the components are spectacular. The cast is aces throughout. Ramos carries the entire deeply episodic movie on his shoulders, and Olga Merediz gets a show-stopper of a number that might win her an Oscar if popular sentiment builds between now and October. Barrera is a “new to me” find (fine, I’ll see Scream 5 with my arms uncrossed), and the film makes more than just the love interest. Vanessa gets plenty of scenes not related to her flirtations with Usnavi, while for that matter, Grace’s courtship with Benny (Hawkins) is secondary to her conflicts related to college. The latter culminates in a lovely dance on the side of a building, including a perfect reaction shot. Smits and Beatriz offer able support while Miranda seems to be gentle spoofing himself as the Piragua Guy.

As noted above, the film looks and sounds spectacular, with the Jon M. Chu who made Step Up 3-D coming to play. For folks wanting a splashy live-action musical with colorful characters played by ridiculously beautiful people, well, isn’t that why we go to the movies? And, yes, Hispanic audiences who value seeing themselves up on the screen will get an extra jolt from the lavish production and the moments of raw relatability. I still wish there was an entertainment ecosystem for the likes of Ramos and Barrera to star in more than “Diversity The Movie” or to prop up past-their-prime franchises as an alibi for keeping the likes of Transformers or Scream on life support. Movies like In the Heights, Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon should have been made/released 20 years ago before the glut of marquee character-specific action franchises decimated the movie star system.   

It’s a problem if you need a Hollywood movie to realize that non-white/non-hetero/non-male folks are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America hasn’t been a shining beacon of late, so maybe we do need glossy studio flicks to remind folks not to be monsters toward their non-white neighbors. My cynicism (or hopelessness) notwithstanding, Hollywood cinema is still better off with In the Heights than without it. My narrative and pacing issues notwithstanding, including the very real defanging of the source material’s more complex relationships which create a kind of generic happy-happy joy-joy feeling, it’s still a $55 million major studio that A) is a live-action musical, B) features a predominantly Hispanic-American cast and C) concerns the trials and tribulations of regular people dealing with life-sized problems and life-sized conflicts. In the Heights may be oppressively joyful, but that still makes it a good time at the movies.

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