Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical has choice moments and a solid cast but is far too messy to work.
During his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a draft of his debut play. At first, he “had one song and a title: In the Heights.” Soon after, the musical would premiere at the school’s student-run theater. John Buffalo Miller and Quiara Alegría Hudes helped revise it in the following years, and then it snowballed. It premiered off-Broadway in 2005, went to Broadway in 2008, and had international tours throughout the 2010s. A film adaptation felt like the natural next step, and over two decades after its inception, it arrives with a screenplay from Hudes and Jon M. Chu directing.
It’s a big task for Hudes. Here’s an ensemble piece that relies on balancing a swath of characters as well as its shifts in dialogue, language, and tone. It’s just as much of a task for Chu, whose penchant for hopping genres between each movie makes him sound like a decent fit. Alas, this plays well in theory, not necessarily in execution. In the Heights works in pieces but not as a whole, ultimately playing like a jumble of tones, themes, and plot threads it doesn’t acknowledge or develop until it absolutely has to. It can’t get past its lack of focus.
At the center is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner originally from the Dominican Republic living in Washington Heights. He runs the shop with his teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), in the hopes of saving up for a better life. But that goal shifts for him: perhaps that future is a pipedream, or maybe it’s real and in flux. Maybe he’ll move back home. Perhaps he’ll stay. For now, he’s taking it one day at a time, the bulk of his and everyone else’s stories taking place over just a few days.
That bulk carries over one particularly grueling heat wave. Onscreen text refers to how many days are left “until blackout,” the temperature rising and the characters pursuing their own dreams. Usnavi is pining after Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a salon worker and aspiring fashion designer hoping to move downtown. College-aged Nina (Leslie Grace) has just come home from a tumultuous first year at Stanford, her father’s (Jimmy Smits) pressures clashing with her own beliefs. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), whose presence seems to be about as distant as it is divine, acts as a matriarch to the barrio.
On paper, it’s partly about its characters’ differences forming a larger whole. Yet, rather than give each one the time they need to breathe, the movie jumps between them to increasingly shoddy extents. Usnavi’s arc—and, by association, Vanessa’s—is consistent enough, but that’s because he’s the figure closest to a main character. The issue is that In the Heights insists on even having a main character when its construction and scope hinge on being an ensemble piece. It’s too hyperactive to work. It’s like Hudes’ script began as a story just about Usnavi and Vanessa only for it to ladle more and more onto the peripheries.
For a while, it’s at least possible to look over. That’s because the first half of In the Heights is a matter of hanging out with characters and getting a feel of the neighborhood. Chu’s direction lacks the texture to make the environment feel as lively as the movie insists it is, but the cast patches that up. It’s they who, through idle gossip and sheer presence, provide the vitality. The actors elevate the script. Chu rides the actors’ coattails. The musical numbers, meanwhile, are decent thanks to DP Alice Brooks’ fluid camerawork at times. That said, the vocals are overproduced at points, and Chu’s tendency to shoot some later numbers like dialogue scenes makes them feel constrained and sloppy.
In the Heights works in pieces but not as a whole, ultimately playing like a jumble of tones, themes, and plot threads it doesn’t acknowledge or develop until it absolutely has to.
Taking all of this into account, In the Heights is decent summer fare for the first 75 minutes, working as a hangout movie and an ode to Latino heritage. It’s once it really tries to tell a story that it flounders. It loses its footing, sure, but it also compounds all of its missteps time and time again, even making the first half seem rougher in retrospect. Character traits reveal themselves to be woefully underdeveloped, with Sonny, Nina, and Claudia getting the shortest ends of the stick. It’s especially frustrating by the last half-hour in which the movie becomes much more vocal in its politics only to pigeonhole them to single moments.
When those traits turn into plot points, the entire movie wobbles from its core. Between the writing and Myron Kerstein’s editing, scenes clash to the point that they completely cancel each other out. This sort of thing continues, and it does so for something that feels incomplete. Given the 143-minute runtime, some scenes and entire plots represent such missed potential that they even play as filler. In the Heights clearly cares about its characters and themes. That doesn’t mean the care in making something more than the sum of its parts sticks the landing.
In the Heights dances into theaters and onto HBO Max this Thursday, June 10.
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