Directed by John M. Chu
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda (based on their play)
So here we have John M. Chu's adaptation of In the Heights, and I was, more or less, looking forward to it, not least as a welcome back event for theaters. Obstacles came up; seeing it in a theater didn't happen. Frankly, I'm grateful I streamed it, and that something else will have the opportunity to serve as "the first movie I've seen in a theater in ____ months." When does West Side Story come out? "Story's" right in that movie's title, so presumably it'll have one.
That In the Heights turned out to be worth what I paid for it (or, considering the two hours and twenty-four minutes it took to watch it, rather less) is not some totally unanticipated disappointment. I had an inkling it could be underwhelming: for starters, covid made it a part of Warner Bros. and HBOMax's astoundingly lackluster slate of "blockbusters" for 2021; that In the Heights is almost adequate already puts it closer to their best efforts for the year than their worst. Likewise, thanks to another streaming service, I was able to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's other big stage hit, Hamilton, and that turned out to be shockingly mediocre for something so endlessly hyped.
Yet it was hard not to get excited about In the Heights anyway, considering how hugely hyped it was getting, too. Plus it's neither sung-through nor a dweeb's self-insert adventure through history; Miranda didn't even write the play's book. That task was taken on instead by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who's adapting herself for the film. Besides, there's Moana, which is absurdly good, even if somebody, maybe fellow songwriters Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina, maybe Ron Clements and John Musker, maybe just the ghost of Howard Ashman in the Disney machine, clearly clamped down hard on Miranda's magpie willingness to seize on completely new tempos and melodies in the middle of songs, as well as his first-draft's-the-best-draft lyrical impulses. (I know it's never really the "first draft," but he wants you to feel like it is, which is why half his songs slide into samey-sounding slant-rhymed hip-hop written with too much brittleness and fake improvisation to come off.) It goes without saying that Foa'i and Mancina deserved more credit for Moana than they were likely to get when Miranda was already a hugely-marketable household name, but, hey, Miranda was there. Accordingly—and because I'd gone out of my way to not listen to the songs, or spoil myself on it—In the Heights retained some power to disappoint me, even if I'm not too surprised.
In fairness, as much of that's on Hudes as Miranda himself, and In the Heights is exactly what it says it is, taking on maybe my least favorite subgenre of musical, the earnest attempt to capture the good vibes of a specific and beloved place, and in lieu of any actual plot that might make that place interesting, there's a mess of subplots which, theoretically, offer an ethnographic snapshot of its community, but since this might not be entertaining to anybody else, there are also a bunch of songs designed to ingratiate a wider audience to the idea that this place is the best place in the whole world, because, for its characters, it's home. There are many people who will claim both Meet Me in St. Louis and In the Heights as masterpieces. I somewhat doubt these are usually the same people, but I disagree with all of them anyhow. At least In the Heights doesn't forget it is a musical for half an hour at a time, though "being a musical" still isn't something In the Heights is uniformly good at.
The web of subplots here are offered to us by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), whose unusual name gets explained later, heir to a corner bodega in Washington Heights in NYC. We meet Usnavi before a tropical backdrop, somewhere on a beach, describing to a small gaggle of children the magical land from whence he came—those selfsame Washington Heights—and explaining, to these eight year old Spanish-speakers, what "sueñito" means in English (it would be hyperbolic to suggest that the movie is 144 minutes long because it says everything twice, in Spanish then in English, but sometimes it does feel that way*). He tells them what his little dream was, which was to return to the greatest place on Earth, the Dominican Republic he left as a child, this presumably being the place where all of them are sitting now. ("Presumably" being notional for anyone who's ever seen a movie before, though even on its own terms this framing sequence—new to the film—gives the game away, inasmuch as when Usnavi namedrops Chita Rivera and one of his listeners professes ignorance, he asks "What are they teaching you during Hispanic heritage month?", which I expect would be most months for the school system of the Dominican Republic.)
In any event, Usnavi introduces his audience to the other inhabitants of the Heights we'll be spending our time with: Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his employee and cousin, living precariously in America under DACA; Benny (Corey Hawkins), his friend and a dispatcher at Kevin's (Jimmy Smits's) car service; Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin's daughter come home from Stanford for the summer, and if she has her way, for ever, and who is not-so-secretly loved by Benny; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi's crush, and a hairdresser who yearns for the higher living of southern Manhattan; and Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the stage), whom Usnavi considers as close as any blood kin, and who has served for many years as her whole neighborhood's friendly matron.
That's a reasonably big ensemble, and they all have their stories—but, seriously, "stories" is rather too strong, despite this being the word Usnavi and Miranda alike prefer (it's "stories" as in "tell our," for Miranda fancied himself a spokesman long before he became one). It's more like "a set of dynamics." Nina gets the closest in that she's determined to never return to Stanford, due to the racism of her instructors and classmates (most notably during an episode where she was accused of stealing a pearl necklace from her roommate, Daisy Buchanan), and this is why she continues to chafe at all the "attagirls!" she keeps getting from the neighborhood, and why when her father belatedly realizes that she's been lying about deadlines on purpose they're going to have to have a tense conversation about it. The rest of it, meanwhile, just kind of circles around, with at least two perfectly good narrative devices—a blackout that renders most of northern Manhattan "powerless" (hm), a lottery ticket somewhere in Washington Heights with winning numbers—that never quite cohere into anything but the vaguest possible structure. I am genuinely disappointed that it never becomes a zany farce about looking for the missing lotto ticket. The cutest thing is also a new-to-the-film element, but barely present, and I sometimes found myself wishing that this were a musical about the Piragua Guy (Miranda, satisfying his desire to cameo in an adaptation of the play he starred in) and his nemesis, Mr. Softee (Christopher Jackson, previously Benny on the stage), battling for control of the summer treat market.
Without a plot, this should default to character, but this doesn't get us much of anywhere either, In the Heights being populated by characters all-but-defined by their little dreams—Ramos makes Usnavi a comforting anchor, but that's, like, the maximum—if they're defined at all. Some of this is lost in adaptation, certainly, but Vanessa's motivation for moving downtown is that "downtown they're rich," and there she can be a famous fashion designer, which is putting the cart before an enormous horse; I'm sure one could generate a reason why Nina went to Stanford instead of Columbia, but the movie doesn't. It could still be a fun little slice-of-life dramedy, but not with this script's dialogue. Maybe not quite typical, but emblematic, consider Usnavi reaching for a way to describe Vanessa's designs. He says, beaming, that they're like Wonder Woman mixed with The Simpsons mixed with Guernica—presumably the Picasso painting, not the Nazi war crime, though it's a painting of the war crime. Improbably, she takes this as a compliment. It's too bad, because "man who cannot come up with appropriate comparisons to save his life" might've given Usnavi personality in ways that "shy nice guy" doesn't.
It's not going to get there with these conflicts, either. It has something going on, mainly just ten or twelve lines of dialogue, about the gentrification of the neighborhood, though the people moving in must be so white they've gone clear, and whatever clientele the "organic drycleaner" is servicing, and it must be big because he wants to expand his store, it is entirely invisible. (Plus when we see Washington Heights eight years later, nothing has changed, despite nobody in this movie having actually done anything about gentrification, other than I guess its petit bourgeois characters not selling their businesses.) You'd think a movie that has no narrative but does have two attractive couples would bank on romance. You'd be wrong: Usnavi appears to like Vanessa because he's horny, Vanessa appears to give him a shot because he's basically pleasant, and they fall in love in what feels like the screenplay's negative space—and even when they encounter friction, this vanishes into the darkness of the blackout—and while Nina and Benny are better (Grace and Hawkins may honestly just have more chemistry), they're pushed surprisingly far into the background for an ensemble piece where every other character is less interesting.
But no story, flat characters, fiat romances? That's the film musical's bread and fucking butter, and I could probably name a dozen greats that I'd describe exactly the same way. Yes, most that do something successful with those ingredients also have runtimes in the 90 minute range. But the point is that it shouldn't matter, because what they're here for is to provide a scaffolding to hang some nice tunes off of while people break out into song and/or dance. In the Heights boasts nearly an hour of songs, a high ratio for any musical. It cheats a little to get there—it's not sung-through, but Miranda has a bad tendency to allow songs to bleed into dialogue anyway, which does violence to both—but it's still a lot of music. The songs aren't great, though: some have energy, like "In the Heights" and "96,000" (that is, the lotto payout) and "Carnaval de Barrio," and Miranda put a lot of effort and energy into drawing together a number of different Caribbean styles and tying them together with showtune and hip-hop bows. The result, predictably, is an anodyne melange that rarely sticks with any idea long enough to get any use out of it. ("Pacienca y Fe" excepted—maybe.) "Less-than-great songs" isn't even what kills In the Heights, though, and now we're finally talking about how Chu decided to put this musical on screen.
For starters, the Washington Heights neighborhood he's created doesn't feel like a block so much as it feels like three businesses across the street from one another. (Whatever else I could say about Crazy Rich Asians—it's a "romance" where the boyfriend is like the fifth or sixth most important character—Singapore feels like a place, and its elite, a community.) There is, of course, the distracting frequency with which this movie degenerates into a long advertisement for Tide pens, though maybe this is fair enough, since "preventing stains on people's clothing" might be the closest Usnavi and Vanessa get to a shared interest; I'm unimpressed with how, in a record-heatwave summer, the T-shirts have really cleanly-defined armpit stains like somebody carefully wet them before the shot, but nobody ever seems to sweat. Even movie-sweat.
And as a dance-heavy musical, it doesn't invite me to catch up with his Step Ups; it feels like it hasn't learned one single lesson from any movie musical made in the last fifteen years. Take anything that could be wrong with a movie musical from the turn of the century, and double it. Treble it. There are dance numbers in this film, dance numbers aplenty, their choreography wrenched gruesomely apart by montages that blast images at you like a machinegun (not necessarily montages with great continuity editing, either), with just enough iconic visuals for someone in 2021 to say "it's like a Busby Berkeley movie!" Because it definitely is if you've never seen a motherfucking Busby Berkeley movie, and therefore don't realize that when he created giant radial patterns of people shot from overhead they went on to—you know—do stuff. (Oh, is there an underwater shot? It must be just like an Esther Williams aquamusical, too.) I'd expect some of these people can dance, but they rarely get a chance to demonstrate it for more than a half-second at a time; there is more cutting in any minute of nearly any musical number in In the Heights than there is in every musical number in (to keep it in the "check out this town" subgenre) An American In Paris. There may be more cutting in one minute of one of In the Heights' musical numbers than in every scene in An American In Paris. More often than not, I found it kind of pummeling, and not in any kind of good way, and that's too bad, because there are good ideas—the beginning of the big part of "In the Heights" is probably also the best single shot in the movie, an "impossible" computer-assisted shot that finds the chorus reflected in the window of Usnavi's bodega as he looks out (and I appreciate that the window has been cleaned by someone who only slightly gives a shit, so you can see the squeegee streaks), and it's in part "the best shot" because it outlasts the decay of a muon.
The alternative, anyway, happens in "When the Sun Goes Down," which is deep, deep into In the Heights, and also its first foray into anything novel ("Pacienca y Fe" deploys some decent-ish metaphorical imagery, but doesn't seem to realize "on a subway train" and "inside a tunnel" force sharp limits to the visual possibilities of something that should be way more cosmic). "When the Sun Goes Down" is essentially an extension of Astaire and Donen's "You're All the World to Me" into a digital era, which finds Benny and Nina defying gravity and dancing across walls and windows—it was heavily showcased in the trailer. It lasts about ninety seconds, and doesn't really have a denouement. It may be shot in longer takes because its special effects-boosted choreography suggested simpler, easier moves. But it is more-or-less alone in the film as possessing real vision, and the only time I felt my heart move up in my chest. It's not a piece of shit or anything; but I expected that to happen fifteen or twenty times, given the talk.
*The HBOMax subtitler also decided not to transcribe the Spanish parts. I don't mean translate; I mean transcribe. It's a landmark for representation indeed!