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- In the Heights
- Directed by Jon M. Chu
- Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, based on the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes
- Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera and Jimmy Smits
- Classification PG; 143 minutes
I promise not to begin every film review this one-dose summer with the following lament, but: my goodness, I wish that I could have watched In the Heights in a crowded movie theatre. A blindingly bright burst of unabashed romanticism powered in equal parts by the showtune-drenched childhood dreams of Lin-Manuel Miranda and several too many cups of café con leche, the new musical is explicitly designed to be projected on the largest screen possible, paced with enough breaks for spontaneous audience-in-the-aisle applause.
Watching the film at home – whether it’s because most cinemas are closed in Canada, or because you’d just rather stream HBO Max in the U.S. than step inside a multiplex – seems like a special kind of insult to Miranda, director Jon M. Chu and everyone else here who sing and dance and emote themselves to the absolute brink of exhaustion.
But (yes, another “but”): better to see In the Heights at home then not at all. Mostly.
A generous, bursting-at-the-seams adaptation of Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Broadway hit – with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who also wrote the screenplay – In the Heights is determined at every corner to win you over. Sometimes by the sheer magnetism of its performers and its eye-popping choreography. Sometimes by the sheer force of Chu’s more-more-more approach. After almost 2½ hours, it’s like being punched in the face by a jazz hand.
Its plot is ridiculously, even insultingly, simple: young bodega operator Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is dreaming of leaving New York’s Washington Heights for the simple, sunny pleasures of the Dominican Republic. Complicating matters are finances, the fashion-industry dreams of love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and the general guilt that comes with leaving a neighbourhood on the cusp of gentrification.
On the sidelines are a host of local characters whose fates you either become invested in – like Usnavi’s buddy Benny (Corey Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher who dreams of owning his own car service, or Benny’s boss Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who is bankrupting himself to send his daughter to Stanford – or forget about midway. Oh, and Miranda himself is here, too, in a small role as Piragua Guy, wisely deciding that he’s far too old to play Usnavi as he did back on Broadway more than a decade ago. (In a full-circle twist, Ramos played Miranda’s son in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton.)
But Miranda and Chu (although perhaps not Hudes) know that you’re not here for layered characters or nuanced narrative. You’re here for the earworm songs, the epic dance numbers, the Washington Heights-as-Fantasyland set design. And those elements kill more often than not.
The opening number especially. Across more than 10 wildly entertaining minutes, Chu – no stranger to keep-’em-busy cinema thanks to his Step Up films – introduces Usnavi and his neighbours with such assured, energetic confident world-building that the rest of reality’s problems all but disappear. And good luck trying to get Usnavi’s rapid-fire rhymes out of your head for the rest of the week.
But Chu, Miranda and Hudes’s work here is also far too obedient to the source material. The trio’s adaptation is, with a few small exceptions (including, um, killing Kevin’s wife instead of including her in the story), almost the entire musical squished into a filled-to-the-brim feature film. There are at least two or three songs that could have easily been left on the stage. And one number crucial to the story in either medium – Blackout, which follows a misunderstanding between Usnavi and Vanessa while also chronicling an urban disaster – is rendered here with a stretched-out sloppiness that intended tension turns into to groaning tedium.
Indeed, the film’s smile-to-groan ratio is mildly concerning. By the time that Chu reworks the laws of gravity to illustrate the up-and-down romance between Benny and Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), it becomes too easy to wonder what fidelity demands were written into any adaptation contract – and the increasingly desperate lengths that the film’s creative team had to go to compensate.
But, as with other Miranda properties, In the Heights is designed to charm you into submission – and charmed you will be. You might even get up and dance. And whether that’s in the company of strangers at a theatre or in front of your indifferent pets at home, there is something to be said for a movie that can make you move.
In the Heights is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store, starting June 10, the same day it opens in Canadian theatres, dependent on public health restrictions
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, recommended works will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.