In the Heights review: A glossy, high-energy take on gentrification

In the Heights (Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo credit: Macall Polay
In the Heights (Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo credit: Macall Polay /

On the same day that the trailer for his upcoming directorial debut Tick Tick…Boom dropped online, In The Heights released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters - needless to say, it’s a pretty good day to be Lin Manuel Miranda.

Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, In the Heights is an Uber-glossy, high-energy reimagining of the now-iconic show about immigration and gentrification. Though at times it felt a little insincere and polished to perfection, there’s more than enough vivacity and passion in In the Heights to get anyone – Broadway fan or not – on their feet.

Starring Anthony Ramos, In the Heights follows the escapades of a group of Puerto Rican immigrants living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Usnavi (Ramos) runs the local bodega along with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and spends his days pining to return to Puerto Rico – that is, when he’s not pining after the beautiful yet distant Vanessa (Melissa Barrerra), who longs to leave Washington Heights and begin a career as a fashion designer.

Also milling about are Nina (Leslie Grace) a bright young student who returns to the city after dropping out of a prestigious school, much to the delight of Benny (Corey Hawkins), who has been pining after her for years. Keeping a watchful eye over them all is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood’s pseudo-matriarch, who (unbeknownst to everyone else) has won a lottery ticket worth $96,000.

What’s unique about In the Heights as a film adaption is that it feels so fundamentally different from its source material, despite the fact that Miranda himself not only co-stars in the film but also helped to produce it. In the director’s chair, though, is Crazy Rich Asians helmer Jon M Chu, who’s directed a number of other musically influenced films including two Step Up installments and the remake of Jem and the Holograms. Choosing a fresh (non-Latin) pair of eyes to direct In the Heights is certainly a bold choice, considering Miranda’s significant involvement in the film, and the decision has both its merits and pitfalls.

On the one hand, Chu brings a grand scope to the film that it might’ve been difficult to capture with another director. The musical numbers are large, elaborate set pieces that often involve dozens upon dozens of background dancers, intricate choreography, and (at times) even some visual effects and onscreen graphics. It certainly injects a new sort of life into the material and makes for an engaging viewing experience, but at the same time, such glamour and unrelenting scale can result in the original intent and mood of the musical getting lost beneath the spectacle of it all.

Musicals walk a tricky line between trying to be genuine and emotional while also being inherently campy, and in this case, In the Heights‘ most major flaw is the way it struggles to navigate this line. For all the talk of embracing the imperfections of their neighborhood and celebrating their heritage, the chrome-coated sheen over the entire film makes that message come off as insincere. This extends, unfortunately, do the direction for some of the actors as well – Nina and Vanessa in particular come off as a little difficult to root for and not the kind of driven yet down-to-earth characters we knew them as in the original musical.

This isn’t helped by the fact that In the Heights is an ensemble film that doesn’t always know where it wants to direct its attention – though Usnavi is very clearly the lead in the stage show, he often gets lost in the shuffle in the film version, and the way Chu bounces between the Usnavi/Vanessa story to the Benny/Nina stuff and then circles around to include smaller characters like Abuela, Sonny, and Carla can feel a little dizzying. It’s difficult to really form a solid understanding or connection with one character because they’re almost guaranteed not to be in the next scene. Though the community is certainly a major element in the film thematically, the sheer size of the cast does work against it at times.

There are certainly highlights, though – Corey Hawkins’ Benny has one of the film’s most beautiful voices and an instantly endearing quality that makes us wish we could’ve seen more of him, especially considering how the film entirely removes the conflict between Benny and Nina from the original stage production.

Also flourishing is Sonny, who serves as the film’s comic relief. Despite being the youngest main cast member by a significant margin, Diaz IV runs circles around the rest of the cast when it comes to comedic timing – nearly all of the film’s most memorable one-liners come from Sonny.

The other major standout is, of course, Abuela Claudia – around whom the second half of the film majorly revolves. Her rendition of “Paciencia y Fe” brings the house down and is easily the most moving number in the film – relishing in her ability as an actress as opposed to relying on large flashy ensemble choreography. Chu puts trust in Merediz as a performer and it pays off in a big way – in fact, the majority of In the Heights‘ most effective moments come from beats where Chu just puts faith in his talented cast and doesn’t try to over-direct manufactured emotional beats.

Of course, his directorial flare does lend the film some great visual gags (including a truly creative use of wig mannequins in “No Me Diga”, as well as the building side dancing in “When the Sun Goes Down”. The smaller character moments really work as well – Lin Manuel Miranda and Hamilton co-star Christopher Jackson’s dueling ice cream duet “Piragua” is a highlight, as is anything to do with Daniella and Carla.

Though the sheer spectacle of it all may at times get in the way of the film’s effectiveness as a piece of art exploring the harrows of gentrification and the struggle of being a first-generation immigrant living in New York City, In the Heights still remains an energetic, toe-tapping adaption of a beloved Broadway musical.

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