Review by Sean Boelman
Although he would make it big with Hamilton, musical theatre extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda first burst onto the scene with In the Heights, a musical about the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC, and Hollywood has finally decided to adapt it for the big screen. Yet despite some moments of genuine brilliance, lots of inconsistencies keep this from being as great as it should have been.
The film follows a group of residents of Washington Heights as they set out to achieve their own versions of the American Dream. As an ensemble piece, it’s really compelling. Each of the characters has a fully developed arc, and for the most part, the story manages to avoid a lot of the melodramatic pratfalls that tend to plague stageplays and their adaptations.
The other thing that makes this movie stand out is the way in which it explores the Latino experience in America. There are the good moments, like coming together as a community to support each other through the struggles, and this is a celebration of those, but the film also doesn’t shy away from the bad moments of racism and intolerance.
Obviously, audiences will come to this movie wanting to hear some great music, and they won’t be disappointed. The songs are just as creative as one would expect from Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are definitely going to be some clear favorite songs, “96,000” and “Paciencia y Fe”, which have the most breathtaking musical numbers by far.
With the exception of Melissa Barrera, who goes a tad too big with her role, the cast here is amazing. Anthony Ramos is extremely charming as the film’s narrator and central character, showing that he has the chops to be a great leading man. Gifted character actor Jimmy Smits is wonderful every time he is on screen. And Leslie Grace steals the show more than once.
That said, there is an air of self-indulgence to the whole thing. Miranda’s cameo is a bit gratuitous in the way that it is filmed, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to care without his star power. There are also some moments that drag to an absolute halt for the sake of doing something supposedly cheeky but actually cheesy.
Perhaps the bigger issue, though, are the inconsistencies in the execution. There are plenty of stunning shots, but there are some grand and cinematic musical numbers (“96,000”) and others that are more intimate and stagey (“Carnaval del Barrio”). This causes some substantial whiplash and they should have stuck with one style or the other.
In the Heights has enough moments that bring the magic to make it worth watching, but director Jon M. Chu should have gone all-in on the cinematic side to make this a great movie musical. It’s a charming summer movie, albeit one that won’t be as memorable as many had hoped.
In the Heights hits theaters and HBO Max on June 10.