A review by Lucas Bertsche for The Echo.
Hot off the heels of “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel Miranda’s charming musical “In the Heights” premiered on HBO Max and in theaters this summer, only to be criminally under watched.
The story follows a young dreamer, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who longs to leave his New York neighborhood and return to his native Dominican Republic. As he desperately saves every penny to make his dream a reality, Usnavi’s life intertwines with fellow romantics: his best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), his childhood friend back from school, Nina (Leslie Grace) and his romantic interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera.)
The film is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, written by Miranda. While Miranda’s music is still present, the film is helmed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of “Hamilton.” Blasphemy, I know. “In the Heights,” however, used that unique music style found in “Hamilton” and elevated it with a story and characters I was actually invested in.
The movie transported me to a world far different from my own, to a culture I sadly know little about. A world filled with struggle, but also one where music, dance and laughter are a part of everyday life. A world where every little interaction is filled with witty hip-hop repartee. A world where your dreams are just an arms length away and you merely reach out and seize them.
This film wouldn’t have worked if Usnavi wasn’t an interesting character. Thankfully, Ramos gave an absolute break-out performance, and I couldn’t help but root for his likeable, yet fallible hero. He killed it on all fronts from the music to emotional scenes and comedy.
Barrera’s portrayal of Vanessa was fantastic too. She created a layered character who was far more than just the love interest for Usnavi.
Hawkins and Grace made the most of their supporting roles as Nina and Benny. Despite less screen time, they managed to have one of the most magical scenes in the movie: a dance number on the side of a building.
My main gripes with the film were less about the characters and music and more with the pacing and the runtime. The movie just couldn’t find a way to perfectly balance its main characters. Nina got a ton of screen time in the beginning, but faded into the background as the film went on.
Also, sitting at 2 hours and 23 minutes, the film just dragged in some spots. A few songs could have been cut or at least trimmed. If I had to guess, I’d attribute this to the writers wanting to keep as much of the original musical in the film as possible.
This leads me to the creator himself, Lin Manuel Miranda. Why, Mr. Miranda? Why did you feel the need to put yourself in this movie? I get that he is the writer and star of the original Broadway show, but come on! I didn’t need a 5 minute song with Miranda’s insignificant ice vendor character singing about the heat and his shaved ice. I get it! It’s hot! You don’t have to ruin the pacing just to tell me that over and over.
I’m probably overreacting, but his character just irritated me throughout the whole movie. He had zero effect on the plot, and every time he appeared, it pulled me out of the movie. All I could think was “Oh look, it’s Lin Manuel Miranda!”
Overlong rant aside, “In the Heights” was a really fun and heartwarming summer movie. The music was fantastic, and the characters and themes were relatable. While it may not have wholly affected me and stuck with me like the recent musical “La La Land,” it still put a smile on my face as I left the theater. It’s a shame not many people went to see it in theaters, but I hope it finds an audience on Blu-Ray or streaming.