“In the Heights” wastes its gorgeous score and likable characters on confusing plots and motivations in an odd adaptation of a spectacular musical by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“In the Heights” follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who runs a bodega in a gentrifying part of Washington Heights. He dreams of leaving New York behind for the beaches of his childhood memories but slowly realizes the depth of the connections he’s made at home, particularly with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the girl he loves. Hope is invigorated in the neighborhood when it’s revealed that Usnavi’s store sold a winning lottery ticket for $96,000, bringing to the forefront the dreams of various residents. Taxi dispatch owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) could use the money to pay for his brilliant daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) Stanford tuition, while her once and future boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to go to business school to better his prospects.
The score of the film is absolutely spectacular. Miranda won the Tony for Best Original Score, and listening to the songs it is not difficult to understand why. The soaring ballads and romantic duets are moving, while the ensemble numbers make you want to get up and dance. I think this film may actually be more fun in a living room than a cinema, as staying seated during songs like “96,000” or “Carnaval del Barrio” would be a challenge. The film is worth watching if for no other reason than to hear the beautiful music in context.
“In the Heights” does fall into the classic movie-musical trap of letting dialogue scenes interrupt various songs, particularly big ensemble numbers, destroying the momentum. Two major group songs were thankfully allowed to just exist without interruption or substantive alterations, and they become two of the show’s best set pieces, with awesome vocals and excellent choreography complimenting the music.
The vocal performances are all strong; every actor is a talented singer. There is some overuse of autotune, particularly on Nina and Vanessa, which strips away some of the emotion in favor of sterile perfection, but most characters still maintain a more character-driven singing style, especially leading man Ramos, Olga Merediz as the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as gossipy salon owner Daniella. The ensemble lines and harmonies are likewise substantially over-processed. They sound beautiful, but the perfection robs the sound of any grit, power, or authenticity present in live theater.
Much of the film’s problem is structural, in that there are no stakes to the action, leaving everything feeling rather pointless. Despite its various narrative threads and several characters, “In the Heights” is a fairly simple musical: The $96,000 could change most main characters’ lives and allow them to accomplish their dreams, as two couples — Usnavi with Vanessa and Nina with Benny — fall in love. It has the classic juxtaposition of characters’ wants and needs, where many discover that the most important thing in their life is that which they could not lose, their connections to each other. Director Jon Chu saw that beautiful contrast and decided instead to overcomplicate the plot and character motivations to the point where many of their actions make absolutely no sense.
The block is changing and soon will be gone, making each moment filled with urgency. Except it isn’t, as an oddly tacked-on coda shows the neighborhood remains the same a decade later despite the looming threat of gentrification throughout the film. And all the characters’ dreams could potentially come true, but only with the lottery ticket for $96,000. This also isn’t the case, as absolutely no major storyline is driven by who wins the lottery ticket.
In the stage musical, the $96,000 is the only thing that would allow Usnavi to leave behind everything and everyone he knows to start a new life in the Dominican Republic. When his surrogate grandmother Abuela Claudia gives him the ticket at the end of Act I, it’s a life-changing amount of money. In the movie, Usnavi already has his ticket out of the country before the musical begins, and he is not even sure if he is ready to go. Other characters likewise face weakened motivations.
Musical Nina drops out of Stanford because expensive housing and textbooks are more than she can afford, even with scholarships and help from her father. The multiple campus jobs she works stretch her too thin to succeed academically, the first time the hard-working young woman, who’s used to being the smartest person in any room, has ever struggled in her studies.
In the film, the financial issues take a backseat to her wanting to leave due to microaggressions from classmates and a sad story about being searched by her RA on move-in day. Of course, the racism Nina experienced is only referenced a handful of times and never witnessed, harmed further by Leslie Grace’s tepid performance. The tough, driven dreamer being nearly destroyed by callousness and cruelty works far less than a smart girl struggling academically for the first time in her entire life. By minimizing the financial threat, her storyline becomes far less connected to the main plot, as the $96,000 is no longer the answer to her problems.
Nina’s love interest, Benny, faces similar poor writing. His goal is to attend business school to become an entrepreneur, in order to earn his boss Kevin’s respect and finally prove himself worthy of his dream girl Nina. As the only non-Hispanic and non-Spanish-speaking main character, he likewise faces a cultural divide that must be overcome between him and Nina in the form of a tragically removed post-coital Spanish lesson duet “Sunrise.” In the film, Benny and Nina dated in high school, Kevin already likes him, and the romance lacks any tension besides the looming long distance. He seems to have very little purpose except to be a sounding board for Nina and Usnavi, and any of his flaws are shaved away in favor of keeping him the perfect best friend and supportive boyfriend.
The only change that would have actually improved the narrative and a character’s development — had it been handled better — is Usnavi’s teenaged cousin and mentee, Sonny. In the stage show, his only fear is being left behind as everyone else leaves and moves on, while developing political awareness and an activist streak. But the film changes the kid to being an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States as an infant. The money for Sonny means attorneys and a chance to gain legal resident status, a powerful motivation for a likable character. Except, Sonny being undocumented does not come up once until nearly two hours into the film, in a very brief scene with no build-up or foreshadowing. The payoff of this one minuscule moment comes near the end of the film after another substantive stretch where this important fact does not come up at all.
All of these changes, seemingly innocuous on an individual level, coalesce to upend the plot’s forward momentum and narrative connectivity. Rather than one thematically-related story, “In the Heights” feels like a series of loosely woven vignettes, in the vein of those terrible holiday-specific romcoms like “Valentine’s Day” and “Love Actually.” When four of the central characters’ “I Want” song is about a lottery ticket, the winner should be important to their storylines and be revealed with more than 20 minutes left in the movie.
The movie has a cool visual style, leaning into escapism. Major dance sequences take place on crowded city streets, public pools turn into Busby Berkeley spectaculars, and lovers defy the laws of gravity to dance up and down the wall of their building. The recurring motifs of subway metaphors are shown through stylized animated maps. This lack of fidelity to reality adds an exciting, almost magical feel to the film, which suits the musical genre beautifully.
The performances are hit or miss, although whether that is due to confused character writing or the actors is anyone’s guess. Anthony Ramos shines as the likably awkward lead Usnavi, originally portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He imbues the character with enough charm to distract from his confused narrative arc. Corey Hawkins is likewise fun and sympathetic as Benny, making the most of his sidelined character.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for their love interests. Melissa Barrera failed to bring a needed intensity to Vanessa, who deeply wants to leave Washington Heights to move downtown. Her opening line in the musical is “no, no, no, no,” desperately sung into her phone to a potential leasing office, but Barrera may as well have been singing her grocery list. Leslie Grace is frustratingly bland as the complex and distraught Nina. As much as I adore the songs for Nina that never made it from the stage show to the screen, it was almost a blessing that her emotionless delivery did not rob “Everything I Know” or “Sunrise” of impact the way it did “Breathe.”
Olga Merediz was a dramatic powerhouse as Abuela Claudia, emphasized in her big number “Paciencia Y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”), a moving anthem looking back on her life, relationship with her culture and family, and trust in God and in herself.
It was fun to see Miranda as the Piragua Guy, whose comic relief song never fails to entertain. Daphne Rubin-Vega added levity, charisma, and powerful presence as Daniella. She owns every scene she is in, and as such her major song “Carnaval del Barrio” is a triumph.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a little harsh on the film due to a love of the source material. “In the Heights” is a powerful musical with a great score and wonderful characters, but the film’s attempt to be too much destroys the heart and the internal logic. The exciting visual style and gorgeous music are more than enough to make up for the poor plotting, however. Take a trip “In the Heights” to be moved, entertained, and driven to dance.