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'In The Heights' Is A Spirited, Socially Undistanced, Summer Crowd Pleaser

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi and Vanessa in the film <em>In the Heights.</em>
Warner Bros.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi and Vanessa in the film In the Heights.

In the Heights couldn't be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don't get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of theLin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we've largely gone without over the past year: a joyous sense of togetherness.

This is the most socially undistanced movie I've seen in months. The action unfolds in crowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. The musical numbers, which blend hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.

A lot of this is packed into the movie's transporting opening sequence, which brings us into this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a vendor, selling shaved ice out of a pushcart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a terrific Anthony Ramos.

Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that's especially prized for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his scrappy little business in a place that's rapidly being gentrified, he's joined by a chorus of voices from the neighborhood singing about their own struggles to get by.

As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, might come with him, but Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen in a subplot that ties into recent headlines. One of the more poignant insights of In the Heights is that everyone has a different concept of home.

Usnavi has a long-standing crush on Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera, who's hoping to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, an academic superstar who's just had a rough year at Stanford, where she feels she doesn't belong. But her father, Kevin — a nice turn by Jimmy Smits — wants Nina to stick with it: If she can't get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for anyone else?

Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a cab company that's one of the few remaining Latino-owned businesses in the area. As rents go up and people and businesses are forced out, the community gets a shot of excitement when Usnavi finds out that someone bought a winning lottery ticket for a $96,000 jackpot from his bodega.

I saw In the Heights onstage in Los Angeles back in 2010, and while the screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes has made some smart tweaks and trims to her original book for the musical, some of the material's basic weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and aspirational subplots are engrossing enough, but feel thinly stretched at more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more vivid and immediate on-screen than it did onstage, but in some ways the simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature of the story seems all the more glaring.

Still, there's nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and the director Jon M. Chu is very much up to the task. Chu previously directed Crazy Rich Asians, and he's good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a deft, crowd-pleasing package. It's worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the Step Up dance-movie franchise, and while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is pretty hard to resist.

In the Heights may not be a great movie, but it's a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties.

And there's a knockout solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, wonderfully reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia's big number is called "Paciencia y Fe," or "Patience and Faith," values she's clung to since she moved from Cuba back in the '40s. She's the living embodiment of this movie's loving and enduring spirit.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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