In the Heights (2021)

Dir. Jon M. Chu. Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace

There’s a post-post-credits scene in In the Heights where Samuel L. Jackson comes out to ask Lin-Manuel Miranda if he wants to join the Avengers. But before that post-post-credits scene, there’s a regular post-credits scene where Piraguera (Miranda) takes advantage of a breakdown in the local Mr. Softee truck to sell piragua to a hot and thirsty crowd. At the very end, Piraguera takes an orange cup over to Mr. Softee (Christopher Jackson), smirks a little, claps him on the shoulder, and walks off. This does not diminish the amount of side-eye that Mr. Softee gives Piraguera as he walks away. I laughed as hard at this little sequence as I did at any other part of the movie…except, perhaps, for the scene where something pretty similar happens. The rivalry between the guy selling shaved ice with syrup and the guy selling low-end ice cream is fun. It feels more or less natural, and yet it also gets at an idea that is, shockingly, not important to the film. In Washington Heights, there is a tension between the customs and traditions of the people living in that neighborhood and the icons of Americana encroaching, even penetrating those streets. The film is more interested in the tension of people from Washington Heights trying to push outward—see Nina (Grace) as she recounts multiple moments where people at Stanford make assumptions about her due to her appearance and background—than it is about the outside world pushing its way in. In any event, I was surprised by that choice, but if the movie isn’t interested, it isn’t interested, and as a wise Quebecoise once said, that’s the way it is.

What really made those Piraguera v. Mr. Softee moments shine is the undeniable chemistry between Miranda and Jackson. Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Sonny, was born the same year that In the Heights got a trial run in Waterford; Miranda and Jackson were Usnavi and Benny on Broadway before Ramos and Corey Hawkins turned twenty. There’s a connection of years which I think is hard not to see when you watch the two of them together, and it’s why my wife and I looked at each other after the post-credits scene and said almost at the same time we wanted a movie about them. (This is my “Where were you when you watched In the Heights?” story. If all the professional critics get to add a paragraph about how good it is to be in a movie theater with air conditioning and popcorn and a big excited crowd, then I get to talk about how I saw this on a normal TV via HBO Max with one other person.) It’s easy to envision an 85 minute movie about hijinks loaded with political meaning between two guys selling frozen dessert in Washington Heights, especially when they are as good together as Miranda and Jackson are. I was craving something like that at the end of In the Heights because what Miranda and Jackson share is chemistry. They fit together. There are any number of sins in In the Heights, but the one that keeps it from feeling fun is the lack of chemistry between anyone who didn’t work together on and off for fifteen years. If you squint you can sort of see it from moment to moment. Ramos and Diaz get there when some of the “precocious humorous teen” varnish gets sanded off of Sonny. Jimmy Smits has some of this with everyone, unsurprisingly, but now and again you can see him giving it a go with Leslie Grace. It’s not rocket science that the number Daphne Rubin-Vega leads, “Carnaval del Barrio,” is far and away the best one because it feels like she’s involved with other people on screen. (I can’t say that Stephanie Beatriz or Dascha Polanco add all that much beyond physical presence, but Daniela definitely benefits by having people around her for so much of the film!) For the rest of the cast, movie, etc…eh?

I want to like Ramos’ Usnavi, but there’s just not a lot of charisma in that guy or in the performance, which is meant to sit at the center of the web and connect to everything else. The decision to put Usnavi with four children at a shoreline cabana would be baffling even if Ramos had the magnetism to keep this solar system in balance, but the cuts to basically random kids and a guy like, talking at them is crippling. All it does is emphasize how little screen presence Ramos has, as if to say that we wouldn’t be interested in him breaking the fourth wall, so we need four cute munchkins to hold our attention instead. Couldn’t they have set that at a cat cafe if they were so worried about it?

There’s not much there between Ramos and Barrera, and somehow there’s even less between Hawkins and Grace. Barrera is very pretty and a very good singer, but it’s not the eighth grade production of the school musical and the qualifications for the female lead just have to be higher than that. Put that bland combination of actors together and all you can see are the types. The connections between In the Heights and Rent are almost unbearable without a personality behind Usnavi. “What if Mark from Rent were trying to date?” turns out to be a question with a terribly dull answer, although the question of “What if Angel from Rent were actually an old Cuban woman?” turns out to be a fairly interesting hypothetical. (Like the film version of Rent, the film version of In the Heights does a lot of work after the glue character is dead where everyone says “She was the glue!” but does not nearly enough during the period where that character was actually alive to make us feel a gut punch in the moment.) I’ve seen that scene before where Vanessa, who has been throwing herself at Usnavi, finally snaps at him after his reticence with her goes one step too far: it’s this one, except the volume for it in In the Heights has been dialed down so your roommate can go to sleep, he has an early day tomorrow. All this to say: I was at least interested in a formulaic kind of way in what would happen to Usnavi and Vanessa. “When the Sun Goes Down,” a musical sequence which acts as a send-off for Benny and Nina, is so mystifying and poor that there’s not much to but check your watch and wait til it ends. (If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this for you. You deserve to experience the hallucinatory weirdness of it without knowing just what’s coming.)

The problem with In the Heights, in the end, has much less to do with the people they’ve cast for the roles and much more to do with the guy they brought in to direct. Jon M. Chu may not have Miranda, Jackson, and Karen Olivo at his disposal like Kenny Ortega might have had over a decade ago, but it’s hardly impossible to imagine that Ramos, Hawkins, and Barrera might have gushed through the screen rather than oozed around the proscenium with a more capable director. Haven’t we all seen Ramos do the basically thankless work of playing Miranda’s best friend and then his teenage son in Hamilton by now? Haven’t we seen Hawkins erupt in the Kwame Ture sequence of BlacKkKlansman? The people they put into this movie didn’t get this far by being colorless and dull; even if I don’t think Ramos really has it in him to hold this wide-ranging musical together, I don’t think I’ve ever thought he was dull before. Making us believe that actors have something between them besides times to arrive on set has to do with more than the actors. Somewhere along the line, Chu has to make decisions which amplify that, and what with his obsession with dolly shots to track characters as they walk-and-sing (which is how we are introduced musically to all of our principals except for Benny, who unsurprisingly has the most interesting introduction while constrained to a dispatcher’s desk) and his insistence on cutting when we could watch dancers dance, those decisions crater our connection to the characters. Even that wonderful first Piraguera fights Mr. Softee sequence ends with a baffling choice. The camera rolls around a little before landing on the Mr. Softee logo, and then there’s a cut to the next scene. Rules are made to be broken, sure, but if you’re going to break the rule that “the first and last shots of a scene are the most important,” then shouldn’t we only break that for something a little more important than the hood of an ice cream truck?

In short, Chu has directed this movie badly, and the most clear evidence we have for that hypothesis is in the musical numbers. The first bad sign is that they are primarily reliant on the shock and awe of as many people dancing at once as the camera can squeeze into the frame. In trying to see as much of the scene as possible, which is to say dozens of extras and actual dancers dancing rapidly all at once, we don’t know where to focus. “Carnaval del Barrio,” which, once again, is probably the single best number of the film and the single best performance, has exactly this problem. In picking wide shots, cutting rapidly, shooting people in the midst of the dance, and then coming in and out with no real sense of who’s important or what actions are important, it makes the dance feel far weaker than the energy expended to do it must be. There’s a lot, certainly, but how much does it matter if there’s no opportunity in the film for us to savor it, or to pick out a particular dancer and key in on their movements. I tend to favor fairly slim groups of people dancing at one time (and if you think about your favorite musicals or the dance sequences from film which come to mind first, you probably do too), but it’s not impossible to put together an enormous number of people dancing while maintaining our focus on a few important individuals. I promise that when I was first thinking about this, I was going to use “The Varsity Drag” from Good News as an example, but apparently our corporate overlords don’t want that one on YouTube anymore! Thus, at the risk of self-parody, we’re headed back to “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity.

There are so many people in this number, and there are stretches where it seems like most of them are doing something different than one another. Bob Fosse does what Chu doesn’t appear able to do: he waits for impact. First, he introduces us to Sammy Davis, Jr. and his three disciples, who are all costumed distinctively enough to tell them apart. Not that Davis needs the help for us to recognize him given his fame, but our eyes need the help as we follow him through this reddish, lit by tail-lights parking garage. Thus: pink. All pink, matching the overall thrust of the lighting in the scene but just different enough that our eyes have to pick him up. (In Good News, when the camera wants us to find the diminutive June Allyson, we find her: she’s got a pale pink dress where the vast majority of the other women are wearing cool colors, and of course there is a backdrop of men in black tuxedos to make her stand out even further.) Fosse resists the temptation to have groups of people doing the same thing grow too large, but when he does put together more than twenty people doing the same thing, Davis is at the center. Our eyes may start at the outside and circle to him, or we may start with him and go out to the rim of the action, but there is a focus. “Carnaval del Barrio,” once it leaves Daphne Rubin Vega, doesn’t have a focus anything like that and the scene as a whole suffers for it.

Without getting too far into “96,000,” which I think has many of the same problems as “Carnaval del Barrio” plus some needless cute animation topping off the first minute or so of the number, it is the part of the movie which I think is most about spectacle and visual excitement. It doggy-paddles its way into the wonderful world of swimming dance numbers.

(Boy was it tempting to choose The Great Muppet Caper instead, but I’ve already gone to the personal favorites well once too often.) Comparing Bob Fosse and Busby Berkeley to Jon M. Chu is one Vincente Minnelli away from really piling on, but while Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks were trying to figure out how to maneuver a crane to get as much of the pool as possible, you can tell Berkeley is more interested in what’s actually going on in there. He’s leaving a visual impression with unusual lighting choices and an instant creation of a shape. Take the video from :43 to 1:27 to see what I mean. I don’t get the sense that this is like, the most fun thing in the world. I do not want to be one of these kaleidoscope pool ladies. But it is undoubtedly a more lingering set of images than Barrera in a pool float while people we can barely see cavort around her.

I want to be very clear here: In the Heights is a better movie than Cats. But when Cats does that Jellicle Ball sequence, it follows those basic principles of giving us space to see performers moving, providing us room in the middle of the frame to focus on key characters, dressing them in ways that help us to recognize them. To put this a slightly different way: even a movie musical as flat out bad as Cats seems to have a better handle on making a legible, grammatical group dance sequence I wish In the Heights took care like that to really give the dances the attention they deserve. Otherwise, we start to wonder, reasonably, why this is a musical. The stories about people trying to figure out how they can leave Washington Heights for something different—or, maybe, figuring out why Washington Heights is the only home they want—would hold up better and get more time to stretch out if we weren’t interrupting them with songs and dances which don’t lead anywhere and don’t engage us. This is the La La Land problem attacking movie musicals once again, and it is striking in a place where I never would have expected it. A film adaptation of a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical should not make us think “Gosh, I wonder if this should have even been a musical,” because there’s no doubt that it was intended to be one, not just some mirage of vague signifiers which might fool people into believing a musical was in there the whole time. This was sold as the next great movie musical, and judging from the first and second waves of reviews, it’s being reviewed as the next great musical. If that’s the case, why doesn’t it have a single dance number as well-constructed as the “No Dames” sequence from Hail, Caesar!, or a vocal performance that lingers like any of half-a-dozen songs from Inside Llewyn Davis? In short: why couldn’t they get the Coen Brothers to direct this instead?

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