Livin’ on a dream
In the Heights lacks some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s past music magic but brings a fresh take to the American Dream
Celebration is the predominant note in the new cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical In the Heights. The movie—in theaters and streaming on HBO Max—is loud, colorful, and joyful, like fireworks on a hot summer night, and audiences emerging from pandemic restrictions will resonate with the celebratory singing and dancing in the streets.
Miranda’s blockbuster success with Hamilton (2015) gave him and co-creator Quiara Alegría Hudes the opportunity to adapt this older show for the screen. Miranda’s music and lyrics might get top billing, but the visual storytelling from director Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, the Step Up sequels) provides much of the movie’s fun. Chu grounds the cinematography in the streets of New York, and the dance numbers avoid looking like a filmed stage production yet still pay homage to Hollywood’s musicals of yesteryear.
Most of the action takes place during the days leading up to a blackout in New York City’s Washington Heights, a predominantly Hispanic community on the north side of Manhattan. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) owns a bodega and knows all his neighbors. He even knows how they like their coffee. His little shop is the cornerstone of the neighborhood, but Usnavi dreams of leaving New York and returning to the Dominican Republic, the land of his childhood, to reopen his father’s beachside bar, El Sueñito, or “The Little Dream.”
This movie is full of little dreams: Usnavi dreams of impressing Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the pretty girl who works in a nearby nail salon. Vanessa, though, finds Washington Heights oppressive and dreams of moving downtown to pursue a career in fashion design. Usnavi and Vanessa want to escape, but their friend Nina (Leslie Grace) dreams only of returning—she’s home for the summer after her first year at Stanford, and she doesn’t want to go back. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), meanwhile, dreams of seeing his daughter graduate from a prestigious university. Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for Kevin and dreams of rekindling a past romance with the boss’s daughter.
In the Heights focuses on the challenges and triumphs of one ethnic community, but the musical actually celebrates the broader American dream. New York, and by extension America, is a land of possibility where people with nothing can, through hard work and a little luck, create a little something. That’s not to say the movie celebrates the American dream uncritically. It explores inequity, prejudice, gentrification, and the rising cost of higher education, but it maintains a belief that America, in spite of its flaws, offers its residents hope.
In the Heights isn’t perfect. The story, running two hours and 20 minutes, could be tighter. Miranda’s songs in this film, while clever, aren’t as magical or catchy as the ones he wrote for Hamilton or even Disney’s Moana. After watching In the Heights, the only song I found myself humming was a callback line to a song from Hamilton included as an Easter egg. The script lacks focus and inexpertly juggles the multiple storylines, and its attempts to grapple with social issues sometimes seem contrived. Events swirl around Usnavi rather than his character taking an active role. (After the film’s release, Miranda also apologized to critics who said the production didn’t fill enough lead acting roles with darker-skinned Afro-Latinos, who make up a significant portion of the Washington Heights neighborhood.)
Despite framing the story as a tale Usnavi tells his children, this PG-13 movie isn’t suitable for youngsters. It contains a few instances of foul language and innuendo, and some parents will be wary of the skimpy costuming and pervasive sensual dancing.
But it’s comforting to see a movie claim that the American dream is not merely individualistic but intergenerational. The film’s watchwords are “patience and faith,” affirming the simple joys of family and community. In spite of the pageantry, In the Heights reminds audiences that a kind word and a home-cooked meal can change the world.
—A version of this review appears in the July 17, 2021, print edition.
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