IN THE HEIGHTS Movie Poster | ©2021 Warner Bros.

IN THE HEIGHTS Movie Poster | ©2021 Warner Bros.

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Marc Anthony, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Quiara Alegria Hudes, original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the stage musical, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Director: Jon M. Chu
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: June 11, 2021

IN THE HEIGHTS is a big, bright, mostly cheerful movie musical. Perhaps because it’s on screen, as opposed to in its original stage incarnation, it feels a little like a condensed, singing version of working-class TV dramedy series like THE CHI or VIDA. Everybody is concerned with love, money, and work. It’s charming, and it also feels like comfort food.

Our hero and narrator, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), is at a beautiful beachside café in the Dominican Republic. He’s telling a quartet of riveted youngsters a tale that took place “Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Nueva York …”

More specifically, we are in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Usnavi, with the help of his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz), runs a corner market/convenience store. Usnavi dreams of saving enough money to move back to the Dominican Republic homeland he left at age eight, and open a beachside café there. He also dreams of romance with manicurist Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Vanessa dreams of getting together enough money and success to become a Manhattan-based fashion designer. Cab dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) dreams of reuniting with his ex, Vanessa’s friend Nina (Leslie Grace). Nina, who has fled Stanford University, dreams of figuring out where she belongs.

Meanwhile, we’re on an onscreen countdown to a huge power blackout in the midst of a scorching heat wave. Per Usnavi, the streets in the Heights are made not of gold, but of music. The action bears this out. There are a variety of music festivals, plus people bursting into song about where they are and how they feel.

There are obstacles and losses (one is surprisingly moving). Still, director Jon M. Chu, screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes, and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, in adapting the stage musical (for which Hudes wrote the book and Miranda crafted the songs), keep the tone mostly upbeat.

The men here are refreshingly celebratory of the women’s intellect and creativity, and everyone appreciates the notion of community and Latin unity (besides the Dominican Republic, characters have roots in Puerto Rico and Cuba, among other places).

IN THE HEIGHTS is energetic and upbeat. Director Chu goes full Busby Berkeley with a swimming pool sequence, and Barrera has major dance chops. There’s also a sweet duet in which Hawkins and Grace appear to dance along the side of a building.

The cast is appealing, with Ramos endlessly personable and Barrera adorable. Grace adroitly handles Nina’s apprehension. Hawkins deserves a special shout-out for his versatility. After playing the brooding action hero of 24: LEGACY and a science nerd in KONG: SKULL ISLAND, it’s great to see the actor get to show off his musical theater side as well. Olga Merediz shines as Abuela Claudia, a childless woman who serves as unofficial grandmother to the whole neighborhood.

Miranda’s rhymes are clever and his tunes lively and hummable. We like everybody. It’s just that IN THE HEIGHTS doesn’t feel very propulsive. Events happen and people move, but the film has more atmosphere than drive or weight. We have a good time, as though we’re hanging out with very agreeable folks at a party, but there aren’t many standout moments.

If you’re enjoying IN THE HEIGHTS, stick around for the tag scene with a song reprise after the credits.

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