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Five Cent Cine: In the Heights

“Heights” is no “Hamilton”

Anthony Ramos’s breakout as leading man Usnavi—lover, dreamer, entrepreneur, surrogate father, dancer, singer—is an electric performance in the team effort that produced the first post-lockdown blockbuster musical, “In the Heights.” If the production is less than fully satisfying—not-so-novel, actually—it may be the result of creativity by group. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought us the shockingly fresh and entertaining “Hamilton,” is part of that group, which includes director Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). And, though he is solely responsible for the lyrics and music, the “Hamilton” star shares writing credits with Quiara Alegria Hudes. Too many cooks?

The story arc is strong, and yet derivative and lacking in timeliness: immigrant lovers must decide whether to go or stay in their cultures (a dilemma explored in “American Graffiti” [1973] and in Richard Rodriguez’s 1982 best-selling book, “Hunger of Memory”), whether to go or stay together as couples, asking where and what is home? The Dominican-dominated Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights is at least a temporary home for most of the major players who contemplate life elsewhere. Usnavi’s love interest is the gorgeous Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a manicurist with dreams of renting an apartment downtown and designing her own fashion line. Nina (Leslie Grace, in her first major role after several music video shorts) is another character with doubts about her place, as she returns to the Heights disillusioned by the isolation she felt in her first year at Stanford (the student body is 11% Latino at the time of this writing). Her boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins, one of the more experienced TV and movie actors in the cast), is a car dispatcher who agonizes over Nina’s ambitions versus his desire for her. The current hot political issues of gentrification and “Dreamers” are raised briefly, but not explored.

The cast is rounded out with three excellent, secondary portrayals: Abuela Claudia, the community’s grandmother, (Olga Merediz, the veteran actress who developed the role on Broadway); Sonny, Usnavi’s helper and surrogate son (a playful and engaging Gregory Diaz IV), and Nina’s father, Kevin (a low-affect, restrained Jimmy Smits, of TV’s “NYPD Blue”). Flashy women from the local salon (led by Daniela [Daphne Rubin-Vega]) function as a Greek chorus. Look for Miranda in a minor role. 

Despite the multiplicity of faces and bodies onscreen, the narrative holds together. But the characters, aside from Usnavi, are too thinly drawn, and their stories lack depth. No meaningful conflicts, as there were in “West Side Story” (film, 1961) or as far back as “Oklahoma” (film, 1955), erupt within the community; no Jets/Sharks or farmers/cowboys to enrich and complicate the plot. Even in the singing and dancing number “Carnaval del Barrio,” where flags (“banderas”) of different Latin countries are raised and praised, it’s all one big happy family. 

A light-skinned family, that is. The film has been widely criticized for “colorism”—specifically, for the failure to cast more dark-skinned Latinos not only for the major roles (the male lead is light-skinned, and freckled), and for the “cast-of-thousands” dance numbers as well—and for the failure to represent the population of Washington Heights, which is predominately Afro-Latino. Director Chu has defended the casting, noting that they “tried to get the people who were best for those roles,” and Miranda issued an early apology for falling short “in trying to paint a mosaic of this community.” Others have argued that the film should be understood as a fantasy, rather than an attempt to accurately characterize the ethnic and racial makeup of the neighborhood. “That argument assumes that Black Latinos do not belong in these imagined worlds anyway,” counters Isabelia Herrera in a probing roundtable on the colorism issue by 5 “New York Times” journalists, writing under the print-edition headline, “The Pain of Being Erased.” 

“In the Heights” has won acclaim for its lavish song and dance numbers. “96,000” (the name comes from the winning amount on a lottery ticket), features a cast of 500 and was filmed in a pool, with overhead shots reminiscent of the geometry of Busby Berkeley’s 1930s’ extravaganzas. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny dance up and down the vertical walls of a tenement, echoing Fred Astaire frolicking on the ceiling in 1951’s “Royal Wedding.” It’s these unusual set-ups and also the energy and over-the-top physicality of the dancers that set this musical apart. The club scene, especially, features reality-defying choreography.

Chu and Miranda chose to include a wide variety of music and dance forms (not enough Dominican ones, according to some critics), while featuring hip hop and salsa. The result is exhilarating, to be sure, underscoring the prominent, dynamic role of music and dance in these immigrant cultures and communities. From another perspective, the film might seem to offer excess and acrobatics for their own sake, making Bollywood and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) appear as tame as an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. In this view, a sense of a Dominican Republic community has been subverted to showy extravagance; more becomes less.

Plain stories and two-dimensional characters are common to musicals, but one expects the uncommon, creative mind behind “Hamilton” to go farther. “In the Heights”—winner of four Tonys, including Best Musical—in fact came to Broadway 7 years before the more sophisticated and more daring production of the two (and was first written more than 20 years ago when the playwright was in college). In the interlude, Miranda learned a lot—though perhaps not enough about casting.

Date: 2021

Stars: 3 (of 4 stars)

Director: Jon M. Chu

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Language: English, Spanish, the latter with some subtitles

Runtime: 143 minutes

Availability: In theaters around Buffalo, and streaming on HBO Max; see JustWatch here for future expanded availability

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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