Movie Review – In the Heights (2021)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is a film adaptation of the musical In the Heights (2008), which was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four of them, including Best Musical. It was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a producer of this film. Miranda won his first Tony Award and Grammy Award for that production. It was the precursor to Miranda’s Hamilton (2016), which is now the most-nominated musical in Tony Award history. It received 16 nominations and won 11, including Best Musical. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In the Heights was merely a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In terms of box office, the show ran for three years. Hamilton ran for five years before COVID-19 shut it down, but plans are to open it again because it was such a financial hit. Just from a numbers perspective, In the Heights never reached the heights of Hamilton. It established Miranda and his musical style, but arguably it wasn’t as good or as well-received as Hamilton.
Yet, his 2008 musical is clearly more personal to Miranda than Hamilton. That 2016 musical was about the founding fathers. The trick or gimmick was telling Alexander Hamilton’s biography using Latino or Black actors, as well as utilizing rap music as the language of doing so. It was such a bold and creative trick that it helped to propel the 2016 musical into the stratosphere of pop culture. Despite being populated by a minority cast, Hamilton was not about the minority experience, at least not culturally, even though some themes could be described as such. However, the 2008 musical is very much about the minority experience, particularly the Latino experience and particularly those that live in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Anthony Ramos (A Star Is Born and Monsters and Men) stars as Usnavi de la Vega, a 30-year-old who lives in Washington Heights and runs a bodega. Things go by pretty fast and a lot of exposition is expressed through song lyrics or often rap lyrics that are spit out in a frenetic pace, so I could’ve missed something. Yet, I believe Usnavi inherited the bodega or convenience store from his parents who presumably passed away. He loves the neighborhood and many in the neighborhood like him and visit his store daily. Usnavi though wants to leave and return to the Dominican Republic where he was born.
He came to the United States when he was 8, but, since losing his parents, particularly his father, he wants to pick up what used to be his father’s dream, which is rebuilding his father’s beach bar called El Sueñito. Usnavi is working with a lawyer to make the move but the process or logistics of him moving is something the film doesn’t focus much. In a weird way, I was reminded of Pixar’s Up (2009), but, that animated film did a better job of making the audience feel why it was important for the protagonist to leave where he was and pursue a dream of a dead loved one. That animated film also did a better job of making us feel the ramifications. Here, the only real ramification involves Usnavi’s cousin but even that doesn’t feel like a complication with any kind of consequence.
Melissa Barrera (Vida and Club de Cuervos) co-stars as Vanessa Morales, the love interest to Usnavi. She’s aspiring to work in the fashion industry. She possibly wants to be a designer. She wants to open her own store or boutique, but she doesn’t have good enough credit to do so. She basically needs someone to cosign, but the space she wants is someplace downtown in Lower Manhattan or maybe midtown where real estate is higher or more competitive. Yet, it’s never explained why she would go so far away to open a store.
Like the recent Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020) or Merawi Gerima’s Residue (2020), I thought this film might say something about the idea of gentrification. In the film, we do see white people buying up properties in Washington Heights. By the end, the film veers into this feeling of pride for the community and this specific neighborhood, which is there from the beginning, but it feels like there’s a disconnect when it comes to Vanessa’s trajectory. What also feels like a disconnect is the relationship between Usnavi and Vanessa. It’s obvious that Usnavi has a crush on her or is smitten with her. Beside superficial reasons, we don’t get much of what draws these two together. Their relationship just isn’t developed much at all.
Leslie Grace, in her feature debut, also co-stars as Nina Rosario, the daughter to a man who runs a car service. It’s not sure if it’s a taxi service or limo service, but she’s clearly intelligent. She’s done well enough to be accepted and actually attend Stanford University in California, which is an Ivy League school. She returns to visit her family and her neighborhood for the summer. Her time in Stanford hasn’t been great and she describes what could be considered racist experiences, but mainly she didn’t feel like she didn’t have community at Stanford.
She seems to suggest that she was the only Latina or Hispanic person at Stanford. A simple Google search though undermines that idea. It’s not even clear why she went to Stanford when there are closer Ivy League schools and even one in New York City, that of Columbia University. There’s also NYU. To All the Boys: Always and Forever (2021) did a similar thing. The reasons for picking a school in New York or in this case not picking a school in New York are never fully fleshed out. Nina also has a romance with a boy who works at her father’s business. This film fleshes out Nina’s romance a bit more than Vanessa’s but I feel like Nina’s romance ultimately detracts or distracts from what is supposedly the main romance between Usnavi and Vanessa.
Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKlansman and Straight Outta Compton) plays Benny, a friend to Usnavi who works at the car service business. He’s the love interest for Nina. His romance with Nina is cute and does provide a great dance number that feels very inspired from Fred Astaire’s “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding (1951). Other than that though, I felt as though the romance between the two was padding. Nina and Benny’s relationship was probably better utilized in the play but feels like filler here.
It felt like Miranda wanted to give space or voice, no matter how brief, to as many people as possible. As such, there’s a lot that doesn’t generate as much depth of understanding or emotion. Several characters like Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx), seems like he’s supposed to be an integral character but by the end felt like an afterthought. Tony Award nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega plays Daniela, the owner of a beauty salon. The film wants the audience to care more about her, but the film never does enough to really invest us in her life.
Rated PG-13 for language and suggestive references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 23 mins.
In theaters and available on HBO Max.