“This is a vaccine for your soul,” director Jon M. Chu promised of his ebullient, high-energy, big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award-winning 2007 musical, In the Heights, about young Latino New Yorkers chasing their dreams in a tough neighborhood.
It turns out to be more Berocca than Pfizer, a fizzy, feel-good outing of a movie that’s a jolly post-pandemic pick-me-up, if not a world-beater. Pumping up Miranda’s sweet and simple story of dreamy corner-shop owner Usnavi (a tender Anthony Ramos) striving to regain his dad’s hurricane-crushed bar in the Dominican Republic, Chu opens out this small stage show into a restless, neighborhood-roaming, heatwave-fuelled good time.
Yet while the director’s Step Up 2 skills turn upbeat numbers like blackout block-dance party ‘Carnivale del Barrio’ into glossy, high-color fiestas, the film struggles to keep the show’s original Frank Capra-ish community feel, its tight focus and warmth.
Alas, wistful newcomer Leslie Grace lacks impact as local girl-made-good Nina, clashing with proud cab-company-owner dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) over her future. That’s not just because the slightly cheesy screenplay has sandpapered any angry edges off the pair. It’s also because Chu is handier with dynamic dance numbers than these flat family scenes, or with Nina’s halting romance with cab-despatcher Benny (a hard-working Corey Hawkins). Even when the clever camerawork has the couple dancing literally up the walls, like La La Land, things feel emotionally underpowered.
Much bigger on feelings than West Side Story-style high drama, In The Heights should be all about being torn between ambition and relationships. It crackles with music-video energy and visual imagination in hairdresser Vanessa’s fabric-wrapped dreams of being a downtown designer in ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’, thanks to sparky songstress Melissa Barrera. Her slow-burn love story with Usnavi, snagged on his dance-floor timidity but fuelled by his big-heart generosity, is deliciously engaging too.
When the film gets it right like this, or with Olga Merediz’s yearning granny, you forgive its lack of star power (bar a Lin-Manuel Miranda cameo) and the shortage of Greatest Showman-style singable tunes. True, it may not have Hamilton’s grabby narrative or musical power. But, after a hard year, the sheer exuberance of a swimming pool bursting with dancers celebrating a lottery win with propulsive rap anthem ‘96,000’ may be the uncomplicated good time your soul needs.
In the Heights is in cinemas and on HBO Max from June 11 in the US, and June 18 in the UK. For the best HBO Max prices, be sure to click through that link.