Cinema Dispatch: In The Heights

In The Heights and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Jon M Chu

Things are finally opening back up and I’m so glad that we finally get to see movies in theaters again (remember to get vaccinated before you go!), but I’ll admit that I’m also still glad that Warner Bros is still releasing movies on HBO Max the same day as theaters.  I don’t know if I’ll ever truly return to my old routine of going to the theater two to three times a week, but if I’m going to get ANYWHERE close to that I’ll need to make the transition slowly, so being able to sit on my couch and catch up on the latest releases without having to worry about show times or theater prices is a genuine relief to me.  Perhaps a big lavish musical like this is something that SHOULD be seen in the theater, but I saw Hamilton for the first time on a TV and it blew me away then so hopefully Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earlier musical can hit home the same way whether it’s seen in the most ideal conditions or not.  Is this adaptation of the Broadway show as magical as you would hope from the names behind it, or was it a stretch to hope that Hamilton’s success would mean all of Miranda’s works were worth bringing into people’s homes?  Let’s find out!!

Washington Heights is a predominantly Latino community in New York City where Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) whiles away the days working in his bodega and fondly remembering of his childhood in the Dominican Republic.  He has always dreamed of returning there one day and when an opportunity to leave all of this behind and return to his home country, he seizes upon it and plans to leave the community in just a few days’ time.  While trying to tie up his loose ends, we learn more about the people of Washington Heights, their struggles, and the many characters who fill out the rest of the story including Nina (Leslie Grace) who’s back from her first year at Stanford but may not be able to return, Melissa (Vanessa Morales) an aspiring fashion designer who can’t catch a break, Claudia (Olga Merediz) who everyone in the community loves but has some deep pain that she’s pushing deep down to try and be the matriarch of the community that everyone needs, and even good ol’ Benny (Corey Hawkins) who dreams of pulling himself up by his boot straps and making something of himself in the world of business.  As these stories interweave and Usnavi’s flight out of the country gets closer and closer, more secrets are revealed, more heartbreak is had, and more than enough excuses to dance are made to make the days go by with a smile on everyone’s faces and joy in their hearts!  Will Usnavi’s final days in Washington Heights change the way he sees himself, his dreams, and the people around him?  What hardships will the people in this community face, and will they be able to overcome them with strength and pride?  Is there any other neighborhood with THIS density of amazing dancers, because I’m pretty sure Time Square’s got NOTHING on this!

You can’t sign a lease in Washington Heights without two years of contemporary dance, MINIMUM!

To state the obvious right off the bat, I’m not the target audience for this movie, there’s nothing about the imagery that is nostalgic for me, and there are just certain aspects of these characters’ plights and arcs that isn’t going to connect to me as much as it will to those who this story was written for.  For whatever my humble opinion is worth, I did like it but it felt a bit long winded and spread a bit thin; nothing that’s a deal breaker but it feels a bit undercooked compared to Hamilton.  It makes sense considering that Hamilton was written after this and it seems that Miranda hadn’t refined his style yet, but it also has the heady exuberance of a true passion project with Miranda himself gleefully showing up from time to time in the movie to sing one of his songs with the utmost of gusto.  What will carry you through most of this movie are its style, energy, and delightfully upbeat music; all of which admittedly do get a bit wearisome of its overlong runtime, but it manages to find some gravity and weight towards the end to balance it all out.  Perhaps something shorter wouldn’t have overstayed its welcome, but once again I’m not the target audience and I’m not someone who would have been disappointed if their favorite song didn’t make the cut or most poignant subplot got truncated.

You can’t cut out the Spider-Man dance scene!  What’s the point of making this if you cut out the Spider-Man dance scene!?

The movie starts off firing on all cylinders with its biggest and arguably best song that introduces us to Washington Heights and the characters that live there.  The actors they chose all play their roles with gusto and some of the bigger names like Jimmy Smits deliver great performances which kept me engaged thought its opening scenes even if the songs sounded a LITTLE bit familiar.  Miranda has a VERY distinctive style that’s as evident here as it was in Hamilton with very lyric heavy hip hop beats (some of which sound like they got reused in Hamilton) and a corny yet endearing sense of humor.  It all works and I particularly loved the scenes with Miranda chewing up the scenery, but where Hamilton had quite a bit of variety in the songs this one kind of uses the same style throughout; relying more on bombast and spectacle to tell the story than subtlety or drama.  For a musical though, that’s what you want for the most part and this film delivers on that front if nothing else with some FANTASTIC chorography and very catchy tunes!

Shine on your quirky dude!  Also, I have that exact pair of shoes.

However, once the opening numbers are done, the characters are fully introduced, and the movie has to start going somewhere is when things start to flail a bit and where this movie gets pretty tedious to sit through.  None of the stories are particularly compelling enough to be the backbone of the narrative that keeps us invested in what’s going on beyond the surface level aesthetics.  You KIND of get the birds eye view of the situation following Usnavi and Vanessa’s subplot about opening a fashion store is consistently well executed whenever they get to it, but pretty much everything else gets drowned out in the pageantry and jubilation; like trying to have a serious conversation in the middle of a night club.  There’s also something of a disconnect for in the cinematography and framing of the musical numbers that manages to undercut some of the more serious stories in this; in that I feel that the overtly sunny and vibrant numbers with everyone dancing merrily and singing with such joy make it hard to buy the more difficult questions at the heart of the story.  The themes of poverty, gentrification, and racial tensions affect the story but only in discrete parts before getting crowded out by big musical numbers and dance routines; none of which is bad but perhaps there should have been a bit more variety in the songs as it’s hard to sustain such a long run time on all this flash and very little substance.  The one sequence where the pageantry and the serious drama come together perfectly is with Claudia and her big song.  It tells a beautiful and heartbreaking story, and the lavish visuals enhance its themes and impact rather than take away from it.  I guess you can’t have NOTHING BUT GUT PUNCHES throughout the second act, but I think a bit more structure at least (and some judicious editing) would have helped the second act from feeling like such a slog.

Give it a few years and she’ll get a Mama Mia-esque prequel movie. I’m calling it now!

Thankfully the third act is where things slow down and the story can really start to shine through.  It still has its fair share of over the top extravagant songs, but there’s a better balance between that and the more sobering aspects of the narrative.  It even does what La La Land did which was get more and more grounded in its aesthetic to strip away the artifice once everyone’s situations hit a critical juncture, and the entire neighborhood seems to get sadder and less vibrant to match the emotional wavelength of the people living in it.  This is also where the movie seems to have gotten the most significant rewrite from the musical as there’s a strong Dreamers subplot that was added, and frankly it was a smart move because the movie really needed something like that to keep the whole thing from feeling too disconnected from world in which it’s supposed to take place and to represent the people it wants to put front and center.  As far as the ending, I can’t say that I LOVED it.  It’s more or less the same ending as in the show (albeit presented more as a TWIST here), and it feels a bit trite when the other ending would have had some dimension to it; a bittersweet note to end the story on where you can debate whether he made the right choice.  As is, it just kinda keeps things feeling like one big party which is granted a HUGE part of the appeal of this movie, but it’s also what kind of grew wearisome over its runtime and what the third act was seemingly getting away from.

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me right back in!  And good thing too, because this place rules!”

Not long before this movie came out, Bo Burnham released his comedy special Inside on Netflix which connected with me on a distressingly personal level and felt like something truly remarkable if a TINY bit self-indulgent and navel gazing at points.  However, it’s not something that I expect everyone to fall in love with as the way it touches open issues and feelings that I have dealt with is not going to be universal to everyone, and I feel that the same metric should apply to this movie.  Being so far from the target audience of this movie means that there are going to be nuances and deep rooted feelings that simply will pass right through me and hit hard for someone else much in the same way that Burnham’s anxieties and coping mechanisms made all the sense in the world to me.  Trying to be objective, it seems the most obvious issues are its length and repetition as so many scenes seem almost interchangeable with only tenuous connections to the larger plot, but aside from that and some of the issues about representation brought up by people much more knowledgeable then I, I think it succeeds in its sheer euphoria at being a movie that gets to have this kind of story with this kind of cast and this kind of production.  I’d recommend seeing it even if you aren’t the target audience as the first act in particular feels like a fantastic party, but I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to leave a bit early.

3.5 out of 5

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