Things To Watch: In the Heights

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Title: In the Heights

Describe This Movie In One Life is Worth Losing Quote:

GEORGE CARLIN: That’s why they call it the American Dream: because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Brief Plot Synopsis: There are eight million stories in the naked city, here are two (or three) of them.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 4 Scorpions albums out of 5.

Reviews For The Uneasily Quarantined: In The Heights

Tagline: “The time has come.”

Better Tagline: “Hey, I’m dancin’ here!”

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Get to know bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), “the girl who made it out” Nina (Leslie Grace), hairstylist and aspiring fashion designer (and Usnavi’s love interest) Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), lovestruck Benny (Corey Hawkins) and a host of others in this Upper Manhattan neighborhood as they sing, dance, and sweat over one hot summer.

“Critical’ Analysis: After what feels like an eternity, but has really been about 15 months, many of you are probably eagerly anticipating a return to theaters. If so, you could do a lot worse in breaking your cinema fast than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s joyful, ebullient In the Heights.

Adapted from Miranda’s pre-Hamilton effort (and exhaustively advertised as such), this is about as far as you can get from that film, production-wise. Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and choreographed by Chu’s Step Up collaborator Christoper Scott, In the Heights evokes classic Hollywood in its elaborate musical numbers — from Busby Berkeley (“96,000”) to Fred Astaire (“When the Sun Goes Down”) — and its timeless melting pot message.

From the exposition-heavy opening number (“In the Heights,” duh), we get an intimate portrayal of the neighborhood and its residents. Aside from the previous mentioned principals, there’s Usnavi’s undocumented cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits … Sifuente can sing!), and the salon ladies (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco), who function as a Greek chorus of sorts.

And after a year of indie downers and underwhelming blockbusters, it’s nice to start the summer off with something accurately described as “feel good.” The story’s conflicts — which really only sets the characters against their own insecurities and gentrification — might be toothless, but it still hits the spot after the vortex of misery that was 2020.

This means Miranda is now behind one of the most vital movies of 2020 (Hamilton was the only major release moved up a year) as well as the most exuberant one of 2021. At least until Jackass 4 comes out.

It’s also pretty wholesome, in spite of the occasionally suggestive lyrics of “I Don’t Know,” or the horny-for-Vanessa street/club dudes, or references to the size of Benny’s “car.” Fine;  it’s not *that* wholesome.

Credit to Miranda for ceding lead duties to Ramos, who does an excellent job (LMM still pops up as the Piragua Guy, so that’s fine). Also popping up, as Sonny’s dissolute father Mr. de la Vega, is singer Marc Anthony, who seems to have finally found a way to maximize his natural cadaverousness.

The movie naturally takes some departures from the Broadway musical, with some events shifted around, some characters excised completely, and the fate of the mysterious Lotto ticket pushed to the end. Chu’s choice to frame everything around Usnavi narrating the story to a bunch of kids is also kind of awkward, and occasionally interrupts the flow of the story, but it’s a minor complaint.

You won’t find a lot of incisive commentary about systemic racism, or urban “renewal,” or generational poverty, but that’s not the point, and it’s not what we’re here for. Instead, In the Heights wonderfully captures the hopes and dreams we’ve been told all our lives are distinctly American. And at least in some places, people still believe in them.

In the Heights is now in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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