Embracing, immersive and inclusive, the Tony winning “In the Heights,” the musical that launched Lin-Manuel Miranda as a phenomenon, comes to the screen with its Broadway charms more or less intact.
Jon M. Chu’s film has a little pathos and moments of rambunctious fun with big dance numbers staged on the streets and in the gigantic public swimming pool in the north Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights, that gives the story its name.
Chu, a veteran of the “Step Up” dance movie franchise before “Crazy Rich Asians” made him famous, emphasizes the tiny world the story encompasses, a tightknit Latin neighborhood where the Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans get along, sing along and fret over the simmering threats any such Manhattan community faces — power outages in the summer heat, gentrification and monied yuppies.
Usnavy (Anthony Ramos, terrific) is our storyteller and star, relating the tale of his old barrio to kids on a beach in what we take to be his native Dominican Republic. He ran a bodega “in the heights,” “stuck to this corner like a street light,” serving cafe con leche to his customers and keeping his teen cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) busy and in line.
He pines for salon star Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, impressive), which earns him a lot of teasing from Sonny and his car service driver/dispatcher pal Benny (Corey Hawkins, fun). Maybe if he picked up on her dream, to become a fashion designer, he’d have a shot.
That’s the subtext of “In the Heights,” dreams, “sueños.” “Little dreams” (“sueñitos”) are what everyone in The Heights has, of moving back home (Usnavy’s dad had a beachside pub named El Sueñito in the DR), “getting out” or of getting a daughter through Stanford.
That’s what car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, superb) hopes for. But daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), “the smart one who made it out,” has come home with plans to leave school, which is draining Dad’s bank account and crushing her spirit. Benny was sweet on her, back in the day.
There’s a graffiti artist who gets on everybody’s nerves, a piragua vendor (Lin-Manuel Miranda, perfect), peddling shaved ice snowcones, a full service beauty salon presided over by the brassy Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, a scene stealer) and the old Cuban woman everybody calls Abuela (grandmother) Claudia (Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway and wears it like a glove). She sort of holds it all together with calls for “paciencia y fe,” “patience and faith.”
They’ll need that to get through what our storyteller, Usnavy warns, will be the big test of the place — an upcoming power outage.
The songs mashup a few genres — Salsa, Merengue, Samba, and hip hop — and are mostly aspirational anthems, not entirely forgettable. But there’s nothing here that sticks that landing the way the show stoppers in “Hamilton” do.
Everybody gets a tune or a part of a song (Jimmy Smits Sings! Well!) as we hear character songs, descriptive numbers about the people and the place and Caribbean-flavored expressions of “longing” — a mainstay of the musical theater, whether on stage or in a Disney cartoon — “It Won’t be Long Now” until Vanessa gets that apartment in another neighborhood, “96,000” where everyone wonders who bought the winning LOTTO ticket at the bodega.
“No Me Diga,” a playful tune about the gossip such communities live on, is a stand-out. And Miranda’s character-song about his work selling shaved ice cones is entertaining and illustrative of his songwriting style here.
New block of ice, Piragua
So sweet and nice, Piragua
It’s hotter than the islands are tonight
And Mr. Softee’s trying to shut me down
But I keep scraping by the fading light…”
The film, which makes a few changes to the stage play to add drama and sentiment, comes off as a “Do the Right Thing with Dancing,” with all of the friction and most of the conflict rubbed off. There is no “villain,” and barely a hint of anybody showing so much as a dark side. The characters struggle mostly against perceptions of themselves within larger American culture and the tug of the “paradise” they or their parents or their parents’ parents moved away from.
The casting underscores the “reality” of the place — decent singers and excellent dancers, good looking people of all ages, with lived-in faces and bodies, perfectly at home in the Heights, save for the two female leads, who have a whiff of willowy, runway-ready “Disney Princess” about them.
It’s all pleasant enough, decently-acted and sung and beautifully-shot. But I thought it lacked lump-in-the-throat moments and found the romances too tame to generate heat or much of a reason to root for the couples. There’s a lot of stumbling and fumbling about for “an ending,” the main reason this drags and drags towards the 2:24 mark.
If you want to know the best reason to stick around through the credits, look for this name, the real “star” of this version, in my opinion. “Step Up” vet Christopher Scott’s joyful, sassy choreography has some jaw-dropping moments. “In the Heights” doesn’t truly reach the heights, except when everybody’s on their feet.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some language and suggestive references
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Credits: Directed by Jon M. Chu, script by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the musical by Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:23