In the Heights isn’t going to save the theatrical experience, but at 143 minutes, will help kill some time.
In development since the musical made its Broadway debut (basically), a cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights arrives this week in the U.S., positioned as Warner Bros. first big Summer release and, perhaps, the savior of flailing multiplexes across the country. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a movie’s shoulders, but the overwhelming success of Miranda’s shameful rap musical Hamilton has made his name very valuable, one that could feasibly get newly-vaxxed Americans off the fence and back to the movies. That would be well and good as we all love going to the movies, but In The Heights isn’t the warmest welcome back, its 143 minutes of cliché and incuriosity likely to leave audience members feeling about the same as they did when the movie started.
Indeed, In The Heights is not a film destined to be reflected on long past the day it was viewed, though this is more a feature of the industry at this point and less a flaw unique to this production. Jon M. Chu, the film’s director, is another feature of the industry, his filmography a hodgepodge of Hollywood franchises ranging from Step Up (2 The Streets and 3D) to G.I. Joe (Retaliation) to Crazy Rich Asians, a big money-maker that secured him this gig and ensured him work for some time to come (his true peak was, of course, that card throwing scene in Now You See Me 2). In theory, In The Heights presented an opportunity for the director to recalibrate his sensibilities for more grounded material that also accommodated his big-budget filmmaking background and history with dance films. But amusingly, Chu’s style remains about the same here, taking a sort of car commercial approach to this Washington Heights-set musical. It’s a dire aesthetic decision really, one that demonstrates a lack of passion for the genre and no actual investment in the setting — but in mild fairness to Chu, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ screenplay is hardly an inspiring text. Pulling from Miranda’s story, Hudes’ script details the life of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who recounts his narrative to a group of children on a beach sometime in the future. A Dominican immigrant running a Washington Heights bodega, Usnavi dreams of closing up shop and returning to his birthplace where he hopes to reclaim and renovate a house that was once owned by his father. As the film starts, that dream is just about to become a reality, but inevitably, romantic yearnings and communal responsibilities start to nag and eat at Usnavi while a “Countdown to Blackout” looms ominously in the background.
The plot is perhaps a bit knottier than implied above, introducing a variety of characters and subplots to build out on-screen Washington Heights some, but any conflict in In The Heights is mostly perfunctory, every resolution foregone and often unsatisfactory (one character’s choice to endure institutional racism at Stanford University so that she can eventually change the system from the inside lands with an uninspiring thud). Usnavi’s romantic turmoil is particularly unpleasant, his juvenile longing for aspiring fashion designer/girl-next-door Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) eventually veering into a misogynist blow-up at the club that inevitably gets walked back. It’s largely just boring, uninspired narrative cycles engineered to land at the cleanest resolutions — there isn’t really anything to take away from the tale that In The Heights weaves. Miranda’s songs aren’t significantly more memorable — and his Eminem flow and multisyllabic words are hard not to chuckle at — though they are at least catchy enough and certainly the best engineered aspect of this production. But even when they’re good, Chu’s direction shortchanges them, losing vocalist continuity frequently and editing song sequences in a fashion more appropriate for music video. Generally speaking, this “fine enough” approach to directing characterizes just about everything else in In The Heights (Corey Hawkins’ appealingly energetic performance notwithstanding). It’s probably not going to save the theatrical experience, but it will definitely kill some time.
You can catch John M. Chu’s In the Heights in theaters or streaming on HBO Max beginning on June 11.