Partying and dreaming on the block
The soaring, ebullient In the Heights, a joyful look at warm-hearted dreamers facing cold-headed truths, is a wonderful way to kick off a post-COVID, post-streaming Hot Vax Summer. If ever the term “crowd-pleaser” applied to a modern movie, it’s this: a heart-pumping, toe-tapping, butt-shaking good time that will fuel a thousand smiles and light up multiplexes from coast to coast. Seeing it on HBO Max feels like a cop-out: this gleeful ode to neighbors deserves a cinematic community watching together in droves.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Tony-winning 2008 Broadway hit makes a seamless transition to the big screen, courtesy of Crazy Rich Asians helmer Jon M. Chu. His nimble direction, antic but never frantic, and full of fantasy, gives every concrete block in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights a percolating personality. The streets are literally overflowing with music, from manhole covers that spin like a DJ’s turntable, to bystanders who make every stroll a choreographed pas de deux, and throngs that slip into synchronized flash mobs. Even the swimming pool teems with Busby-Berkeley chorines. This film has a supple, joyous energy that ebbs and flows, never stopping but also never rushing. It’s beautifully paced, with roving camera moves and quick-scissored editing that feel effortless.
IN THE HEIGHTS
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Written by: Quiara Alegria Hudes, based on the musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Running time: 134 min
Chu has an enchanting way with source material, and just as he turned Kevin Kwan’s novel into one of the best romantic comedies in years, so too does he inject new energy into the Hollywood musical. Both films work because they have such a fairy-tale allure, which In the Heights happily leans into as bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) waxes rhapsodic with a “Once upon a time” recollection about his neighborhood. It’s a story he relates to young children about how Latinx immigrants like himself became adults and chased their own sueñitos, the little dreams that might carry them out of Washington Heights forever. “A block that was disappearing,” he tells them, acknowledging the gentrification pricing out the very people that made it such a vital home.
Usnavi is saving up to move back to the Dominican Republic and open up his own business. Complicating matters is his hard crush on childhood friend Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a comely hairdresser with big plans herself to move downtown and become a fashion designer—if only the West Village realtors would accept her rental applications without a co-signee.
Meanwhile, smart-girl-who-made-good Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is back in town from her first year at Stanford with a painful secret: she dropped out because she couldn’t take the pressure or the prejudice. Comforting her is Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatch operator at her father’s cab company who’s overwhelmed at the prospect that she might come back for good. Her dad, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), has already started to sell off parts of his storefront to make his daughter’s education possible. Money’s tight, he’s sacrificing everything to get guilt-ridden Nina a better life, and she feels trapped by everything except Benny’s love.
Those are the plot’s pressure points, a collection of strained interrelationships and personal pipe dreams that gradually feel like they came from a telenovela. There’s a sense of calculated crisis, amplified by copy cards that announce an imminent heat-wave blackout which leads to reflections about being “powerless”—yes, literally and metaphorically. Subtle, it ain’t.
No worries. The real magic here, of course, is Miranda’s achingly sweet music and spitfire lyrics, a one-two punch of craftsmanship that was also the rocket fuel for his subsequent masterwork Hamilton. Ham-fans, by the way, will thrill when the film playfully trolls them with a throwaway Muzak shout-out. They’ll also love how Miranda cameos as the Piragua guy, shilling his shaved ice and throwing shade at the Mister Softee van—manned by Miranda vet Christopher Jackson.
The songs are a cascade of heart-swelling emotions, from the title track to Nina’s anxious homecoming (“Breathe”) to Benny’s yearning excitement over Nina’s return (“Benny’s Dispatch”) to the gossipy hair salon (“No Me Diga”). The neighborhood fantasizes about winning the lottery (“96,000”), the local matriarch Abuela Claudia has an elegiac reminiscence about her own hardships (“Patienza y Fe”), while Usnavi and Vanessa finally reconcile their feelings (“Champagne”). “Just let me listen to my block,” says Nina. Wiser words were never spoken. Or sung.