Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 26, 2021)
2015’s Hamilton made Lin-Manuel Miranda a borderline household name. Though that musical brought him to the attention of the masses, Miranda debuted with 2008’s In the Heights, another stage production that won multiple Tonys, even if it didn’t become a pop culture phenomenon ala Hamilton.
In the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) operates a bodega. However, he desires to return to the Dominican Republic and resume the business run by his late father.
While Usnavi works toward that goal, he pines for a romance with Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), a local beautician. We follow his personal life and interactions with neighbors and friends along with their own hopes/aspirations.
Confession time: I’m one of the seven people who didn’t much care for Hamilton. Granted, musicals don’t possess immense appeal to me, but that project earned so much acclaim that even I felt the need to see it, so I went when the stage production came to my area in 2018.
I thought it was… okay. I didn’t dislike the time I spent with Hamilton, but I admit I could never figure out why it got so much attention and praise.
Did this influence my potential opinion of Heights? Perhaps, but I think Miranda’s debut encountered more of a steep climb with me due to my lack of love for musicals than because Hamilton left me semi-cold.
Actually, I went into Hamilton with higher hopes because at least the subject matter interested me. As a lifelong student of history, I thought its take on events would give it an intriguing spin, even though I knew it would take obvious liberties.
Heights comes with no obvious hook of this sort – indeed, it barely presents a plot. Really, we follow the characters’ journeys, with an emphasis on their dreams and attempts to bring these hopes to reality.
If one expects to find anything insightful or clever in terms of stories and the various roles, one will encounter disappointment. Heights does little to expand on the personalities and make them especially three-dimensional.
Not that Usnavi and company seem unlikable or problematic, as they maintain basic charm. However, the parts remain simplistic and cliché.
As does the whole “story”, really, for Heights brings nothing much to the basic narrative of working class people who struggle to get by. Oh, the film dabbles in politics a bit, mainly related to the treatment of immigrants and minorities, but it never goes too deep in this regard.
Instead, Heights stays on the surface in basically all ways, from its drama to its romance to its themes. It touches on rudimentary notions but never digs into them with much conviction.
Perhaps Heights would fare better if it offered a tighter focus. Again, while we spend more time with Usnavi than anyone else, the movie covers so many roles that it spreads too thin.
Maybe this works on stage, but on the screen, the end result simply seems disjointed. Do we really need a song from the POV of the dude who sells flavored ice, even if Miranda himself plays the part?
Nope, and director Jon M. Chu fails to find a way to bring life to the project. Best known for Crazy Rich Asians, Chu actually has done plenty of work in the music vein but oddly, he shows little ability to make Heights zing.
In Chu’s hands, the musical numbers feel flat and without real spark. The film gives them rudimentary coverage but never manages to make the singing and dancing pop like it should.
At least Melissa Barrera brings impact to her scenes, mainly because she’s one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever seen. Wow!
At no point does Heights become a chore to watch, but it also never turns into anything memorable or engaging. This feels like an ordinary musical and nothing more.
Footnote: a tag scene with the flavored water dude shows up after the end credits.