I saw In the Heights onstage in Los Angeles back in 2010, and while the screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes has made some smart tweaks and trims to her original book for the musical, some of the material’s basic weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and aspirational subplots are engrossing enough, but feel thinly stretched at more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more vivid and immediate on-screen than it did onstage, but in some ways the simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature of the story seems all the more glaring.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and the director Jon M. Chu is very much up to the task. Chu previously directed Crazy Rich Asians, and he’s good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a deft, crowd-pleasing package. It’s worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the Step Up dance-movie franchise, and while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is pretty hard to resist.
In the Heights may not be a great movie, but it’s a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties.
And there’s a knockout solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, wonderfully reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia’s big number is called “Paciencia y Fe,” or “Patience and Faith,” values she’s clung to since she moved from Cuba back in the ’40s. She’s the living embodiment of this movie’s loving and enduring spirit.
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