“Tell me something I don’t know.” – “No Me Diga”
For those who love Broadway musicals (and are deeply familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work), there’s probably not a whole lot of new information that I can write about in his and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ film adaptation of their Tony award-winning hit “In the Heights” – which won four statues in 2008 – that you don’t already know.
Admittedly, the word of this stage triumph or its transformation to a theatrical release was first-time news to this film critic. I never heard of the play.
Well, after experiencing this tale – of Washington Heights residents wishing to reach their dreams – in a theatre, let me say, “Extra. Extra. Read all about it. ‘In the Heights’ is a visual-spectacular with dazzling, head-spinning arrangements. At times, the celluloid escapades will leave you breathless and with sheer wonderment. We’re witnessing the impossible!”
But, that’s not the whole story.
The movie also runs a bit too long at 143 minutes, and the second half offers more discourse and less music, as the leads debate their struggles against the system rather than a clearly defined antagonist.
A pair of our lead protagonists, however, are awfully charismatic. Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera) are friendly acquaintances in their neighborhood.
Usnavi runs a convenience store (or a bodega) where locals – including Vanessa – quickly stop by for a soda, pastry, or coffee, and they’re off on their merry way. His little cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps out too, and Diaz is marvelous in the role as Usnavi’s backup with his helping hands and timely pearls of wisdom. Sonny may be a teenager, but he’s not tripping over his own feet – literally or in the game of life – as he’s a solid Robin to his cousin’s Batman.
Usnavi has aspirations for more than his modest Batcave on a New York City street corner, and now, he can purchase his late father’s Dominican Republic business, leave the U.S., and return to the Caribbean nation and its blue skies and sandy beaches. Meanwhile, Vanessa – who we first see sporting a New York Yankees baseball jersey – embraces The Big Apple and hopes to open a salon, a place that she can call hers, but financing such an operation is beyond unachievable. But, hey, you know how real estate prices have skyrocketed, so Vanessa might as well file the paperwork to buy the Yankees franchise instead.
The film offers a dueling tale about Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Nina’s a local wunderkind who “got out of The Heights” and studies at Stanford University. She’s back for the summer, but this scholar assumes that it’s for good, which would crush her dad (Jimmy Smits). Meanwhile, Benny works for Kevin (Smits) and is thrilled that Nina’s back, but the uncertainty of her future throws ambiguity into his daily routines.
Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) routine is that she’s an ever-present and loving godmother for the aforementioned characters.
Hudes’ screenplay plays in hard work and daydream themes, as existing circumstances – including the lack of cultural support in Northern California or a nonexistent co-signer for a leasing space in NYC – present socioeconomic roadblocks toward success. She paints a this-is-how-it-is picture for her characters which drives empathy and presents a sense of helplessness for the audience, at least to me.
Usnavi and Vanessa search for their golden paths. At the same time, Nina attempts to rediscover hers, and while these toiling plotlines are the film’s foundation, Miranda’s music and director Jon M. Chu’s gifts for visual storytelling (see also “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018)) lift our spirits. Astonishing numbers like the opening seven-minute “In the Heights”, “No Me Diga”, and “96,000” would instantly punch this film’s ticket to a Best Picture – Musical or Comedy 2022 Golden Globes nomination…if next year’s ceremony wasn’t cancelled. Ugh…but, I digress.
Leading up to the jaw-dropping “96,000” performance, in which all New York City residents seemingly become synchronized swimming Olympians and deliver gold medal routines in a public pool, “In the Heights” is an off-the-charts home run. It’s the film’s crescendo, and it makes the “La La Land” (2016) pool scene look like a collection of middle-aged IT professionals competing in their first-ever game of Duck, Duck, Goose around a plastic kiddie pool.
(Note, I’m a middle-aged IT professional, so I believe I come from a place of authority here.)
After that, the film slows down. Although the skillfully-hectic “The Club” and emotional “Paciencia y Fe” are massive highlights, the big musical numbers are less frequent, and yearnings for romantic connections repeatedly become stalled. Additionally, Usnavi tells his life’s story in retrospect to a small group of kids, and this cinematic device frequently interrupts the movie’s momentum.
The film may have worked even better with a “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) approach, where Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), and others sing throughout that movie, but we do get that style in “Heights” with “Benny’s Dispatch”.
“Wait here with me. It’s getting hot outside. Turn up the AC. Stay with me,” Benny sings to Nina.
Yes, “In the Heights” is at its best when romance or the potential of it fills the big screen, and Ramos, Barrera, Grace, and Hawkins figuratively and sometimes literally dance towards relationships. The impressive leads make it easy to root for their characters’ personal and professional hopes, and I wish we had two solo films to flush out their stories even more, especially Usnavi’s and Vanessa’s. Maybe Chu, Hudes, and Miranda – who pops into the frame as a most welcome guest – can “tell me something I don’t know” in a sequel.
Image and Trailer credits: Warner Bros. Pictures