Posts Tagged ‘John M. Chu’

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa

“IN THE HEIGHTS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

143 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At its best the film version of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” is a colorful Valentine to a neighborhood and a way of life, overflowing with generosity of spirit and gleefully embracing Latinx culture.

It is also overlong, repetitive and, frankly, a bit boring when director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) must turn away from the massive musical numbers at which he excels.

Shot in the Washington Heights area of NYC where it takes place (there’s a bit of a “West Side Story” vibe at work), this adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegria Hudes 2008 hit (he wrote the music and lyrics, she wrote the book) follows a handful of characters through a summer in the city.

Our narrator is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner (apparently) of a cafe/bar in the Dominican Republic.  He’s telling local children the story of how he grew up in Manhattan and came to the Caribbean island to reclaim his father’s long-abandoned seaside business. The entire film, then, is a massive flashback, periodically interrupted as it returns to the “present” for more interaction between Usnavi and the kiddies.

At the heart of the film are two romances.

In the big city Usnavi operates a corner bodega, a natural meeting place for characters from his neighborhood.  The guy is sweet, sensitive and nurturing  — watch him interact with his grandma Claudia (Olga Merediz) and with tweener Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to whom he serves as a surrogate big brother.  

Alas, Usnavi is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to his relationship with local gal Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who aspires to become a fashion designer.

Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), right hand man at the local taxi company run by Kevin (Jimmy Smits).  Benny has long awaited the return of Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just wrapped up her freshman year at Stanford.

Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace

But all was not well for Nina in sunny Cal.  She missed her nurturing neighborhood and was out of sync with her classmates (subtle racism may have played a role); now she is determined not to return to school.  Her father won’t hear of it…he’s already sold off half his real estate to finance Nina’s education and is ready to go even deeper into debt to see his girl achieve the American Dream. Of course, if he sells the business Benny will be out of a job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up as Piraguero, who hawks shaved ice treats from his handcart and frets about the corporate-backed ice cream truck that is competing for the neighborhood sweet tooth dollar.

Now that’s not much plot for a 2 1/2-hour movie, and ultimately it shows. Yes, the big musical numbers — a street party, a nightclub, the local swimming pool — are explosions of color and movement (they remind of that opening number of “La La Land”).

You might call Miranda’s musical score proto-“Hamilton”…the lyrics pour out in a torrent of rapping-like wordplay (if you’re watching on HBO Max, turn on the captions), though the songs have distinctively Latin and Caribbean elements. Actually, there may be more singing in this film than talking…the effect is operatic.

With all this good stuff going on I’m sorry to admit that halfway through I found “In the Heights”running out of steam.  Part of the problem is that Miranda and Hudes, having found their voice, rarely vary it.  Each song sounds like the last (at least to first-timer ears…perhaps with more intimacy with the score the subtle variations become more apparent.

Likewise, the personal relationships established at the film’s outset undergo few dramatic ups and downs as the story proceeds.

The good news is that “In the Heights” has a solid emotional core built around the idea of a nurturing community, and it is this overarching theme (more than the individual stories) that gives the movie its power and sends the viewer off in a warm cloud of feel-good.

| Robert W. Butler

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