In the Heights (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A lively musical film set in Washington Heights

“In the Heights” is a respectable musical film I admired for its considerable energy and spirit even when I observed it from the distance at times. Although I frequently noticed a number of artificial aspects from its plot and characters during my viewing, I was at least entertained by several exhilarating musical moments, and I also appreciated the commendable efforts from its engaging main cast members.

The movie, which is based on the acclaimed musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda (It won four Tonys including the one for Best Musical after it opened on Broadway in 2008, by the way), is set in Washington Heights, New York City, and the opening part introduces us to a young guy named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who has run a small bodega in the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights. As he begins another hot summer day just like many others in the neighborhood, the movie cheerfully sets its tone and background as the opening musical number is played on the soundtrack, and we accordingly get a vivid and vivacious sense of locations and people in the film.

Although he has run his bodega fairly well with his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi has been dreaming of going to his home country Dominican Republic and then running a little bodega once owned by his deceased father, and it looks like he will finally realize his longtime hope. Thanks to a dependable local lawyer, he succeeds in getting that store back, and, though that store was heavily ruined due a recent hurricane, he is not daunted at all as preparing to leave the Washington Heights sooner or later.

Meanwhile, we get to know several other local people around him besides Sonny. There is a sweet old lady who has been a matriarch to many residents in Washington Heights, and she and Usnavi love and care a lot about each other as living together in her residence for years. In case of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a young woman working in a local beauty salon, she has also been dreaming of getting out the neighborhood just like Usnavi, and it is clear to us right from their first scene in the film that she and Usnavi have been attracted to each other even though it seems that they will respectively go each own way in the end.

And there are Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins), who incidentally works at a local cab company owned by Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits). While her father has been quite proud of her studying at Stanford at present, Nina actually drops out for a certain issue which has frustrated her a lot, but she has not revealed that to her father yet, and she also hesitates to go further with Benny even though they are still in love with each other despite her absence during last few years.

The screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book of the musical along with Miranda, is quite predictable in its narrative development, but the movie compensates for that via a series of energetic musical moments to be savored. In case of “96,000”, which mainly revolves around who wins a big lottery prize (You can easily guess who that is within a few minutes, by the way), it is electrifying with several exciting moments unfolded at a local swimming pool, and director Jon M. Chu, who previously directed “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), presents this exciting musical scene with enough pizzaz. The movie later reaches to another peak moment right before a certain big incident eventually happens as announced to us in advance, and Chu and his crew members make sure that this sequence is brimming with lots of excitement and verisimilitude on the screen.

During the second half, the movie lags a bit, and I must confess that I felt a little impatient around that narrative point, but it is still buoyed by more good musical scenes to follow. I like the somber but poignant sincerity of “Alabanza”, and I was also delighted by a sudden energizing moment through “Carnaval del Barrio”. During the scene where “When the Sun Goes Down” is played on the soundtrack, the movie has some visual fun, and that makes this standard love song feel a little more special.

In addition, the movie is constantly enlivened by the presence and personality of its wonderful main cast members. Anthony Ramos, who has been mainly known for playing a supporting character in Miranda’s another hit stage musical “Hamilton”, is charming and charismatic as ably holding the center, and he and Melissa Barrera have a good chemistry during their several key scenes including the one accompanied with a bottle of Champagne. As another young couple in the story, Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins are also convincing in their characters’ relationship development, and Hawkins, who previously drew my attention for his breakthrough turn in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015), confirms again that he is indeed a major talent to watch. Around these four principal cast members, a number of colorful performers including Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, and Olga Merediz have each own fun, and Merediz, who received a Tony nomination for playing her character in the 2008 Broadway production, has a nice showstopper moment when her character tells us a bit about her life.

On the whole, “In the Heights” is a mostly successful adaptation, and, though it is a little too long in my humble opinion, it is not that tiresome compared to “Mamma Mia!” (2008) or “Les Misérables” (2012) at least. I am still not so enthusiastic unlike many other critics, but I enjoyed its musical numbers anyway as admiring the skills and efforts put into this product, so I will not grumble for now.

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