If anything is going to bring back the theater experience, it’s this film.
“In the Heights” is based on the stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and follows a young man (Anthony Ramos) in Washington Heights, New York City as he goes about his life among his community. Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, and Jimmy Smits also star while Jon M. Chu directs.
Like many a’film, this was due out last year but was delayed until this June due to the pandemic. Because it is a Warner Bros. film it now falls under the “in theaters and streaming on HBO Max” umbrella like “Conjuring 3” and “Mortal Kombat,” but I hope that audiences make their way off the couch and into a theater and experience this colorful and fun, if slightly overlong, slice of summer.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name with “Hamilton,” he wrote and starred in “In the Heights,” a musical based in-part on his Latino upbringing in NYC. Miranda produced and has a small role here, but the show now belongs to his “Hamilton” co-star, Anthony Ramos. Ramos has shown up in several supporting roles in the last few years (namely “A Star Is Born” and last fall’s “Honest Thief”) but this is his first true starring role and he makes the best of it. He gets a range of emotions to play with but also emerges into every scene with energy and I can’t wait to see what he does next (rumors have it leading the latest “Transformers” film).
The rest of the cast is solid, too. I really enjoyed Gregory Diaz IV’s witty teenage cousin of Ramos, as well as Jimmy Smits adding some gravitas to his scenes and Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Ramos’ abuela, providing the film’s emotional backbone (one of her songs hit me right in the feels). A few of the other performances and singing can be a bit wonky or over-the-top at points, but no one is flat-out bad and everyone seems to be having fun.
Being a musical, the dance numbers are arguably the most important aspect of the film and for the most part they sore. While the choreography isn’t as detailed or fun as “La La Land” or the songs as catchy or memorable as “Hamilton,” the film manages to capture the spirit of summertime in New York City very well. There are a couple instances of poor CGI or simply too much going on, as well as some poor sound editing (an issue even “La La Land” has in a few spots), but I was tapping my foot on several occasions. Not every song is a bop, but the ones that hit hit in the best ways (“In the Heights” and “96,000,” especially).
My biggest complaint with the film revolves around its editing, which I’ve already touched a bit on. There are several continuity errors between takes (enough that I started to notice and felt compelled to mention here), as well as at least two occasions where the actors’ lip-synching of the songs was blatantly off. The film’s transitions between acts also aren’t very seamless, and while in a stage play you have intermissions and set changes to break the story apart, a film should flow organically. At 143 minutes I started to feel the runtime adding up, and I can think of a few musical numbers or subplots that could have been trimmed out to make this a breezier, more streamlined experience (it is worth noting that my friend I saw this with thought the film flew by, so the pacing may be a personal preference).
“In the Heights” works better in moments than as a cohesive whole, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially in a (respectfully distanced) “packed” theater. Films like this are why we go to the movies and I was lucky enough to see this in IMAX and got to see every drip of sweat on the characters and hear every clank of a Coke bottle. The film will mean more to some people than others (in the same way “Black Panther” did) but there is something here for everyone, so long as you go in with the right expectations.
Critics Rating: 6/10