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  • Jared Huizenga

‘In the Heights’: Full Product is Much Greater than its Individual Pieces

There’s no logical reason that I should like ‘In the Heights.’


I’m a tepid musical theater fan. I have zero interest in ‘Hamilton,’ so the ‘from the creator of …’ when it comes to Lin-Manuel Miranda does nothing for me. I’ve never been to NYC and don’t understand how their boroughs and neighborhoods work. I view my neighbors not as family and friends, but rather an annoyance. And, as a Minnesota-born white guy whose ancestors come from many pasty-skinned countries, I can’t identify with Latinx culture or the plight of undocumented immigrants.


Really, based on the trailers, the only thing that really caught my attention was director John M. Chu, whose work on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ makes up for the rest of his filmography. (Seriously, check it out, there’s a lot of bad there.)

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In the Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (© 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

But as I walked out of the theater after about two and a half hours, I found myself completely entertained and pleasantly surprised.


Here’s the thing though: I don’t know why. I can’t think of one thing I’d call ‘outstanding.’ Likewise, there wasn’t anything I’d call ‘terrible.’ It’s just a bunch of really good pieces that come together to create a really excellent final product.


We start out by meeting our lead character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) as he answers his daughter and her friends’ question about the meaning of sueñito by telling them the story of his NYC neighborhood – Washington Heights.


Melissa Barrera (center) as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In the Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

You see the bodega he owns. You meet his family - Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) and cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV); his friends – Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) and his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace); and the local business owners and employees, namely Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) from the salon. But most importantly, we meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the Usnavi’s not-so-secret love.


Set in the summer days leading into a major blackout, Usnavi tells of how the neighborhood is changing – rents are increasing, long-time businesses are being forced out and new, more expensive ones are coming in, and seemingly everyone has their eye on something bigger.


For Usnavi, bigger is his plan to take Sonny and Claudia to the Dominican Republic, where he’ll reopen his father’s former business. For Vanessa, bigger means an uptown apartment and a career in fashion. For Kevin, it’s continuing to pay Nina’s expensive Stanford tuition.


As is always the case, life is filled with complications and it doesn’t always take your dreams into consideration. While recognizing that change is inevitable, and with more than enough adversity to go around, the Heights must come together before they’re torn apart. Both literally and figuratively.

Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario and Corey Hawkins as Benny in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In the Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

As I’ve been sitting here writing, I think I need to take back my “nothing stands out” sentiments from earlier.


My mind keeps going back to the cinematography in two scenes (they’re shown in trailers, so no spoilers): a grandiose song and dance number taking place at a community pool, and much more intimate duet that takes place on the side of building. So, perhaps the star of the show here is cinematographer Alice Brooks.


Aside from that, I stand by my earlier statement. The acting was solid, but not outstanding; the story was good, and tackled some potentially controversial topics (immigration, gentrification) with tact and subtlety; and the music was good, even if I haven’t had a single song stuck in my head for the last week (like I did with ‘La La Land’ and even ‘The Greatest Showman’).


Kudos to Chu and company for making ‘In the Heights’ much greater than the sum of its individual parts.


★★★★ of ★★★★★