Film & TV

‘In the Heights’: A Summer Hit with Little Substance

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Macall PolayDaphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, Stephanie Beatriz as Carla and Dascha Polanco as Cuca in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In the Heights.”

Director: Jon M. Chu
Date: June 11, 2021

PG-13 | 2 hour 23 minutes

“In the Heights” explodes onto the screen with its vibrant set design and sharp choreography, quickly shaping itself up for future Oscar nominations — just as its predecessor, the broadway version under the same name, racked up multiple Tony Awards in 2008.

Each street corner and block breathes life: the impromptu fire hydrant parties, the flavored ice cart vendors, the community dinners with spices you can smell from the screen.

Stretching nearly two and a half hours, the movie flows between multiple plotlines. There’s Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic; Nina (Leslie Grace), a first-generation college student grappling with racism at her Ivy League university and her neighbors’ expectations; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer struggling to access an apartment downtown; and many, many more stories and characters. 

This movie strikes all the right beats, but it also plays a few too many.

Rapidly jumping between half a dozen character’s plotlines is exhausting to watch, forcing the characters into caricatures. An undocumented teenager worried about his academic future. A dispatch worker at the neighborhood’s slowly crumbling car service. Two gossip-loving salon owners. A beloved matriarch.

Cramming so many characters into a cohesive story is an impressive feat — one the film can’t quite meet. This summer’s expected box office hit has a stunning presentation, but it doesn’t go deeper than hollow quotes begging to be screen-shotted and tweeted with the simple caption “THIS.”

Despite this, will “In the Heights” be the defining 2021 summer movie? Probably. Does the movie deserve the title? Sure.

There’s a stunning personal honesty embedded in each scene. The film offers a beautifully realistic portrayal of Washington Heights, a largely Latinx neighborhood facing gentrification and the loss of its community members as they reach for their sueñitos (“dreams”). 

The physical heat of summer coupled with the rising fever of each character’s problems culminates into “Blackout,” one of the many songs on the soundtrack destined for dramatic laundry folding ballads. Plus, the club scene before the climax is everyone’s post-pandemic dream.

Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Macall Polay Melissa Barrera (center) as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In the Heights.”

Awkward pop culture references about “hustle” culture and being “thirsty as hell” sprinkle the otherwise clever screenplay. Thankfully, the characters are enjoyable enough to excuse the Disney Channel-like humor.

As the film takes too many beats to include multiple main characters, there’s more breadth than depth, resulting in an unclear narrative. As these neighbors leave Washington Heights, how are they saving it? How do they reconcile their dreams of success with their loyalties to their home? How does Washington Heights rebuild after these businesses and people move away?

Unfortunately, for both the film and the viewer, these questions go unanswered. Apart from the addictive soundtrack, flashy post-production animation and an authentic portrayal of a diverse neighborhood, don’t expect more from the movie.

“In the Heights,” rated PG-13, will be in theaters and on HBO Max June 11.

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